Feb 19 (WP) ALMOST FOUR years ago, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a decisive victory in a 26-year-long civil war with rebels from the island’s minority Tamil community. The cost was horrific: A United Nations investigation subsequently found that up to 40,000 civilians may have died in the government's final offensive. But the triumph made Mr. Rajapaksa a hero among the majority Sinhalese community and gave him an opportunity to modernize his country while healing its ethnic rift.
Unfortunately, the president and his family - two brothers hold cabinet positions -have pursued just the opposite course. Having acquired a two-thirds parliamentary majority by inducing the defection of opposition representatives, the ruling party rewrote the constitution to eliminate a two-term limit on the president. Government critics in the press, civil society organizations and the judiciary have been threatened and sometimes attacked by pro-government thugs. According to Human Rights Watch, several thousand people are detained without charge, and state security forces have continued to abuse Tamil activists, including through torture and sexual assault.
The regime has meanwhile brushed off demands by the U.N. Human Rights Council that it conduct a serious investigation into crimes that may have been committed in the final months of the war. Last week the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, NaviPillay, said that no mechanism had been established to trace people who went missing and that investigations of disappearances had not led to arrests or prosecutions.
This year Mr. Rajapaksa has taken two more big steps in the wrong direction. Last month he ratified the impeachment of the chief justice of the supreme court and installed a close follower in her place, neutering the judiciary's independence. The president's legislative majority initiated the impeachment after the court ruled against an economic development initiative by one of the Rajapaksa brothers; the plan ignored constitutionally guaranteed rights for local governments.
Mr. Rajapaksa had promised to expand that local autonomy as a way of addressing the legitimate interests of Tamils, who form a majority in parts of the north and east. But this month he celebrated Sri Lanka's independence day by delivering a speech that reneged on the pledge. The government is now signaling that it may repeal the constitutional provision on local rights.
The United States and other Western governments have repeatedly and publicly protested Mr. Rajapaksa's retrograde measures, but their words have fallen on deaf ears. Human Rights Watch points out that the Commonwealth community of nations may have some leverage, because Sri Lanka is due to host the bloc's summit in November — a high-prestige event for a small country. By threatening to move or boycott the summit and Sri Lanka's assumption of the Commonwealth chairmanship, governments such as Britain, Canada and Australia could send a clear message to Mr. Rajapaksa that his policies are unacceptable to democratic nations.