President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (second right) looks at a soldier raising a national flag during Sri Lanka's 73rd Independence Day celebrations in Colombo on Feb. 4. (Photo: AFP)
As Sri Lanka celebrates the 73rd anniversary of gaining independence from Britain on Feb. 4, concerns are growing about ethnic tensions and threats to democratic institutions in the South Asian nation.
Even though the Tamil language is spoken by 25 percent of the island’s population and is a constitutionally approved official language, the government decided that the national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala during Independence Day celebrations.
"The government has declined to sing the national anthem in the Tamil language, the country's second national language, to promote ethnic harmony even after three decades of civil war," said Subash Savulnathan, a Tamil rights activist who works for inter-ethnic and religious harmony.
"When the national anthem is sung in the Tamil language, Tamils feel that they too are a part of this country. It is a matter of great pride."
Rights bodies are concerned about the state of ethno-religious relations and threats to democracy in Sri Lanka.
Their concerns have risen within a context of unprecedented challenges due to heightened authoritarianism, militarized governance, a global pandemic, entrenched impunity and increasing threats to fundamental freedoms and minority rights.
The National Peace Council (NPC) called on the government to take up the issue of the national anthem and the languages in which it is sung as it affects the sense of dignity, equality and belonging of Tamil speakers.
"The importance of symbolic acts of reconciliation at the present time is heightened by the fact that Sri Lanka is currently facing international strictures by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for failing to implement the commitments on reconciliation made by government representatives over the past several years," said the NPC in a Feb. 1 statement.
"Singing it together will help to evoke feelings of patriotism among the country's citizens irrespective of ethnicity and religion and remind them of their country’s history, diversity and rich cultural heritage, as the words of our national anthem convey."
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a leading public policy research and advocacy think tank, said it is deeply concerned about the arbitrary decision to impose forced cremations on Covid-19 victims, saying it is devoid of any scientific basis and directly impacts and marginalizes the Muslim community.
"The government’s failure in this regard is driven by its mistaken belief that it represents only those who voted for it and the inability to recognize the very political conflicts that underpinned the armed conflict in the country," said the CPA.
It criticized the targeting of those who were instrumental in investigations, prosecutions and other initiatives to address accountability and transparency over the past years.
"A recent development in this regard is the report of the presidential commission on political victimization that raises serious concerns about the integrity of ongoing and past judicial processes," the CPA said.
"Whilst the government is moving swiftly to implement the recommendations of this presidential commission on political victimization, very little has been done to implement even limited recommendations of previous commissions on past abuses and violence."
Thousands were killed and disappeared during the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 when the country's army defeated Tamil rebels. Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations.
According to rights activists, many paramilitary groups, government security forces and the Tamil Tigers were responsible for enforced disappearances and killings during the conflict.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for member states to consider asset freezes and travel bans on Sri Lankan officials accused of rights abuses.
She has called for strong action against Sri Lanka due to its deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.
Her report highlighted worrying trends over the past year, such as increasing militarization of governmental functions, deepening impunity, ethno-nationalist rhetoric and intimidation of civil society.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa played a key role as the defense secretary in the government led by his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who defeated Tamil rebels.
Hundreds of ethnic Tamils began a four-day peace march from eastern to northern Sri Lanka on Feb. 3 on the eve of Independence Day to demand justice for civilians killed and disappeared during the civil war.
"It is scheduled to be completed on Feb. 6. Christian priests, leaders of the relatives of the disappeared, Tamil opposition parliamentarians, rights activists and trade union leaders have joined the march," said a Catholic priest who wished to remain anonymous.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa used Independence Day to stress that he is a Sinhala Buddhist leader and will never hesitate to express it.
"I rule this country according to Buddhist teachings. All religions and all races in our country have the right to enjoy equal freedom within the existing legal framework of the country," said President Rajapaksa as he addressed celebrations at Independence Square in Colombo on Feb. 4.
"I have now received the final report of the presidential commission appointed to look into the Easter Sunday attacks. I have taken steps to implement its recommendations.
"We will not allow those responsible for planning and aiding and abetting this crime to escape without facing the law. We will not allow extremism to re-emerge in this country."
Savulnathan said that all Tamil people need to feel that they are citizens of Sri Lanka and can live in the country with human dignity without fear and suspicion.
"We live in the same country but we have to get justice from the rulers of the country. This is not only for us who are in pain but also for our children," he said.