Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 19,600,000
GNI/Capita: $850
Life Expectancy: 72
Religious Groups: Buddhist (70 percent), Hindu (15 percent), Christian (8 percent), Muslim (7 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Sinhalese (74 percent), Tamil (18 percent), Moor (7 percent), other (1 percent)
Capital: Colombo


The uneasy cohabitation between Sri Lanka's two main political parties came to an end in 2004, as President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament in February and called for fresh elections to be held in April. Strengthened by a strategic electoral alliance with a leftist Sinhalese party, Kumaratunga's coalition was able to form a minority government, failing as it did to win a majority of seats in parliament. Meanwhile, wrangling between the southern political factions continues to impede any meaningful progress on peace talks with the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels. The February 2002 ceasefire is still in place and has contributed to somewhat greater freedom of movement and a reduction in human rights violations by security forces in the north and east of the country. However, the Tigers continue to commit numerous abuses, including the forcible conscription of child soldiers, politically motivated killings, and restrictions on freedom of expression and of association.

Since independence from Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation 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 health care, and other social needs, its economic development has been stunted and its social fabric tested by a long-standing civil war that has killed an estimated 65,000 people. The conflict initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war, although triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives, came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the Northeastern Province, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and was in control of much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula. At the same time, the government was also fighting an insurgency in the south by the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP insurgency, and the brutal methods used by the army to quell it in 1989, killed 60,000 people.

In 1994, Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading the SLFP-dominated People's Alliance (PA) coalition to victory in parliamentary elections and then winning the presidential election. Early in her term, she tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE, but following a renewal of hostilities by the LTTE, she reverted to focusing on a military solution to the conflict. Kumaratunga won early presidential elections in 1999, but the UNP and its allies gained a majority in parliamentary elections held in December 2001 and Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader, became prime minister.

In response to an LTTE ceasefire offer, the new government declared a truce with the rebels, lifted an economic embargo on rebel-held territory, and restarted Norwegian-brokered peace talks. A permanent ceasefire accord with provisions for international monitoring was signed in February 2002. Shortly before the first round of talks took place, the government lifted its ban on the LTTE, and by December 2002, the government and the Tigers had agreed to share political power in a federal system. Although the LTTE suspended its participation in peace talks in April 2003, it stated that it remained committed to a political solution. In June, bilateral and multilateral donors pledged a total of $4.5 billion over a four-year period to support Sri Lanka's reconstruction, although much of the aid was conditionally tied to further progress in reaching a settlement with the Tigers.

However, such progress has remained constrained by conflict between the two main political parties. In November 2003, President Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency, sacked three cabinet ministers and assumed their portfolios, and temporarily suspended parliament. In order to justify these steps, she expressed concern that LTTE proposals for the establishment of a Tiger-dominated Interim Self Governing Authority (IGSA) in the Northeastern Province were a threat to national security. However, analysts noted that an equally compelling impetus for her actions was the UNP's motion to initiate impeachment proceedings against the chief justice of the supreme court, whom the president views as a key ally.

Although the state of emergency was pulled back and parliament resumed functioning, Wickremasinghe claimed that his ability to govern had been severely curtailed by the fact that President Kumaratunga continued to hold the important defense portfolio. The impasse was broken when the president dissolved parliament in February 2004 and called for fresh elections to be held in April. Bolstered by the direct support of the Marxist JVP, Kumaratunga's new PA-led United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition won 105 out of 225 seats and managed to form a minority government. Apart from the JVP, other extremist and ethnic-based parties also made inroads, including a new party formed by Buddhist clergy, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, or National Heritage Party), which won nine seats. The new government's tenuous grip on power became immediately apparent when it failed to secure the election of its candidate to the post of speaker of parliament; instead, the UNP was able to win the position with the help of votes from members of the smaller ethnic parties.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire with the LTTE continued to hold, despite an increasing incidence of violations during the year. Of particular concern was a spate of assassinations by the LTTE of political opponents, suspected informants, and intelligence operatives in the northeast, and more unusually, in Colombo. Uncertainty was also created when the leader of the LTTE forces in the eastern part of the Northeastern Province, Colonel Karuna, who controlled an estimated 6,000 out of a total of 15,000 LTTE troops, formed a breakaway faction in March, alleging discrimination in the treatment of eastern Tamils by the LTTE leadership. However, his rebellion proved to be short-lived; after fierce internecine fighting in April, Karuna disbanded his forces and went into hiding, although clashes and killings between the two groups continued throughout the year as both attempted to reassert their control over the east.

Though President Kumaratunga had repeatedly criticized the UNP government for making excessive concessions to the LTTE, she has indicated that she also remains committed to finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, progress in resuming meaningful peace talks has been complicated by the addition to the ruling coalition of the JVP, which adamantly opposes granting more powers to the provinces or to the LTTE, and by the presence of pro-Sinhalese forces such as the JHU in parliament. While the LTTE insists that any future talks include discussions on the formation of an IGSA, which would give them effective rule over the Northeastern Province, it is clear that the stability of the present coalition government would be at risk if Kumaratunga were to proceed with talks on this basis.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Sri Lankans can change their government through elections based on universal adult suffrage. 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 unicameral parliament is directly elected for a five-year term through a mix of single-seat, simple-plurality districts and proportional representation. Elections are open to multiple parties, and fair electoral laws and equal campaigning opportunities ensure a competitive political process. While elections are generally free and fair, they continue to be marred by some irregularities, violence, and intimidation. However, the interim report issued by the independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence noted that with 368 incidents on election day, the 2004 elections were considerably less beleaguered by violence and malpractice than previous polls had been. The LTTE refuses to allow free elections in the areas under its control and continues to intimidate – and sometimes kill – members of rival non-militarized Tamil political parties.

In recent years, the fact that the executive and legislative branches of government have been controlled by competing parties headed by long-standing political rivals has led to a general unwillingness to effectively resolve issues and construct coherent state policies. Although President Kumaratunga's coalition was able to unseat the UNP's Wickremasinghe in the April 2004 elections and to form a minority government headed by her choice of prime minister, it lacks the mandate and parliamentary strength to accomplish meaningful change. Differences of opinion between the main political factions over the correct way to approach the peace process have led to an inability to formulate a united strategy toward the LTTE and its specific demands during the ongoing but currently stalled negotiations.

Official corruption is a growing concern, and the legal and administrative framework currently in force is inadequate in terms of either promoting integrity or punishing the corrupt behavior of public officials. No current or former politician has thus far been sentenced for bribery or corruption, although a number of cases are under investigation or prosecution. Sri Lanka was ranked 67 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, and independent media outlets can generally express their views openly. However, the LTTE does not permit free expression in the areas under its control and continues to terrorize a number of Tamil journalists and other critics. During the November 2003 state of emergency President Kumaratunga briefly deployed troops outside government-run media outlets and sacked the chairman of the government-owned Lake House media group, and in 2004 the Colombo-based Free Media Movement repeatedly condemned the manipulation of the state media by the president's party for political ends, including pressure on editors and biased election coverage. Reporters, particularly those who cover human rights issues or official misconduct, continued to face harassment and threats from the police and security forces, government officials, political activists, and the LTTE. A number of journalists and media outlets were attacked during the year, and three were killed. The government controls the largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station, while business interests wield some control over content in the form of selective advertising and bribery.

Religious freedom is respected and members of all faiths are generally allowed to worship freely, although the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. The LTTE discriminates against Muslims in the areas under its control and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past. The U.S. State Department's 2004 Report on International Religious Freedom notes that Christian missionaries are occasionally harassed by Buddhist clergy and others opposed to their work. Tensions between the island's Buddhist majority and the Christian minority – and in particular, evangelical Christian groups – appear to be worsening, according to a report released in August by the US – based Jubilee Campaign, with a sharp increase in attacks against churches and individuals noted at the end of 2003 and the introduction of draft anti-conversion legislation in May and June 2004.

The government generally respects academic freedom. However, the LTTE has a record of repressing the voices of those intellectuals who criticize its actions, sometimes through murder or other forms of violent intimidation. Groups such as the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J) have faced particularly severe harassment at the hands of the LTTE.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although both main political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and political events. Except in conflict-affected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely. However, the LTTE does not allow for freedom of association in the regions under its control and reportedly uses coercion to force civilians to attend pro-LTTE rallies.

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. Kumaratunga has used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce.

Successive governments have respected the constitutional provision for an independent judiciary, and judges can generally make decisions in an atmosphere free of overt intimidation from the legislative or executive branches. However, there is growing concern about the perceived politicization of the judiciary, in particular regarding the conduct of the chief justice of the supreme court. According to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement, he has narrowed the scope of human rights litigation, dismissed a number of judges without holding an inquiry or disciplinary hearing, and consistently defended the president and her party in legal actions relating to political disputes. At the lower levels of the judiciary, corruption is fairly common among both judges and court staff, and those willing to pay bribes have more efficient access to the legal system.

Despite an overall reduction in the number of human rights abuses committed by police and security forces, the rule of law remains somewhat weak, and torture and prolonged detention without trial continue to be issues of concern. Such practices are facilitated by legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), under which security personnel can arrest and detain suspects indefinitely without court approval. Although over 1,000 detainees held under PTA legislation have been released since the February 2002 ceasefire, several dozen remained in custody at the end of 2003, according to Amnesty International. There has been little progress in reducing acts of torture by the security forces and police, particularly of detainees during routine interrogations. Cases of custodial death and custodial rape continue to be reported. A lack of aggressive prosecution of the majority of past abuses contributes to a climate of impunity for those who have overstepped the bounds of the law.

The LTTE has effective control on the ground in large sections of the north and east of the country and operates a parallel administration that includes schools, hospitals, courts, and police and other law enforcement personnel. The Tigers raise money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim property, and have used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in their self-styled Tamil homeland. Despite their involvement in the peace process, the rebels continue to be responsible for summary executions of civilians, disappearances, arbitrary abductions and detentions, torture, and the forcible conscription of children to be used as soldiers. Press reports as well as an exhaustive report issued by Human Rights Watch in November indicated that the Tigers continued to recruit thousands of teenage girls and boys in 2004 despite their signing of the "Action Plan for Children Affected by War" in June 2003, in which they pledged to release all children within their ranks. Recruitment efforts are at times so intense that parents keep their children home from school so that they will not be forcibly abducted.

The LTTE has also targeted Tamil political parties that challenge its claim to represent the Tamil people, particularly the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), with over 100 political killings being attributed to the LTTE since the ceasefire was signed, according to Human Rights Watch. A statement issued by the Colombo-based Peace Support Group noted that during a four-month period from April to July 2004, at least 40 people were killed as a consequence of their political affiliation, including EPDP members, followers of the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE, military intelligence officers, elected officials, and members of civil society.

Tamils maintain that they face systematic discrimination in several matters controlled by the state, including government employment, university education, and access to justice. Thousands of Tamils whose ancestors were brought from India to work as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century did not qualify for Sri Lankan citizenship and faced discrimination and exploitation by the native Sinhalese. However, in October 2003, the parliament approved legislation granting citizenship to about 170,000 previously stateless "Indian" Tamils. Tensions between the three major ethnic groups (Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim), which lead to occasional violent clashes, remain a concern. Overall, almost half of an estimated 730,000 internally-displaced refugees have returned to their homes following the February 2002 ceasefire, but an equal number remain unwilling or unable to return to the northeast and continue to live in government-run camps throughout the country, according to Refugees International.

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. Although women have equal rights under civil and criminal law, matters related to the family, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated under the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, and the application of these laws sometimes results in discrimination against women.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.