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 In Sri Lanka’s Elections, a Rajapaksa Win Would Seal Democracy’s Fate

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, wave during a party convention in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 11, 2019 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).
 By Taylor Dibbert
Authoritarian populism has returned to Sri Lanka. Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the country’s seventh president last November, he has, as many feared, brought back the repressive and undemocratic policies of his older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president from 2005 to 2015.

In the first few months of Gotabaya’s presidency, the Rajapaksas—Sri Lanka’s most prominent political family—moved swiftly to centralize power, with Gotabaya immediately appointing Mahinda as prime minister. The two other Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal and Basil, hold important political positions as well; the former is a Cabinet minister, and the latter is both Gotabaya’s “chief strategist” and the national organizer of the Sri Lanka People’s Front, the Rajapaksa-backed political party relaunched in 2016. Gotabaya has also surrounded himself with current and former members of the Sri Lankan military who have been credibly accused of serious wartime abuses during the country’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers.

With the return of this powerful family and their supporters to power, a climate of fear has returned for Sri Lanka’s dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, and others. Under Gotabaya’s leadership, the space for dissent has shrunk and self-censorship has grown, while surveillance, repression and intimidation have been on the rise. In a critical statement last month, Clement Voule, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, warned that lawful peaceful assemblies were reportedly “prevented from taking place, or … met with physical and verbal violence at the hands of individuals, without public intervention.”

But the Rajapaksas are not just unapologetic authoritarians; they are also enthusiastic Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists, enforcing a view of Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese-Buddhist nation, to the exclusion of minority populations. Since November, Gotabaya and his allies have further militarized civilian institutions and stoked Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism to consolidate political power. Fear of discrimination and repression has returned to the island nation, whose long civil war ended brutally in 2009.

In a few weeks, on Aug. 5, Sri Lankans will once again go to the ballot box to take part, finally, in parliamentary elections that have been delayed twice because of the coronavirus pandemic. In Sri Lanka, both the president and the prime minister wield executive power. If the Rajapaksa-backed coalition, the Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance, is able to secure a majority of seats in Parliament and keep the prime ministership, there will be no significant check on Gotabaya’s rule.

The Rajapaksas are likely to use that vast political power to dismantle Sri Lanka’s institutions, rework the constitution and perpetuate a hard-line, nationalist agenda. More than a decade after the end of its civil war, and five years after an election that had seemed to put it on a more firmly democratic path, Sri Lanka is haunted again by the specter of growing oppression. The war may be over, but the ethnic conflict and the pain that emanates from it have persisted. With the Rajapaksas back in charge—disparaging transitional justice efforts and encouraging political, ethnic and religious tensions—Sri Lanka won’t be able to build a durable peace.
A Rajapaksa Resurgence

Some Western observers attributed Gotabaya’s electoral victory to last year’s Easter Sunday bombings, the horrific suicide attacks that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels across the country, killing 269 people. The attacks, which prompted criticism of the previous government’s intelligence collection, security provision and political infighting, certainly helped the Rajapaksas in their election campaign. Gotabaya announced his candidacy just days after the attacks, promising to return stability to the country. Nevertheless, the degree to which the bombings changed Sri Lankan politics has been largely overstated.

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The bombings didn’t save the Rajapaksas from political defeat; rather, the family had been steadily gaining ground for years. After overseeing the devastating end of the country’s civil war and then steering Sri Lanka toward authoritarianism, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency in 2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister in Mahinda’s Cabinet and longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Mahinda lost in large part because of corruption allegations and the growing sense that he was taking the country along a dangerously authoritarian path. But the Rajapaksas, especially Mahinda, continued to be influential players on the political scene. The Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka People’s Front dominated local government elections in February 2018. Then, in October 2018, with the Rajapaksas poised to return to power in the next round of national elections, Sirisena illegally appointed Mahinda as prime minister in an effort to preserve his own future and regain political salience. But the move set off a constitutional crisis that lasted for more than seven weeks. While Mahinda eventually “resigned” from the post, the debacle underscored both Sirisena’s feckless leadership and Mahinda’s continued relevance.

In the leadup to last November’s presidential election, Sri Lankan voters had become extremely frustrated with Sirisena’s leadership. Under Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the coalition government—led by Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremesinghe’s United National Party—was plagued by infighting, incompetence and missed opportunities. It promulgated an ambitious, wide-ranging reform agenda—including improved governance, constitutional reform, transitional justice and economic adjustments—but failed to deliver on almost all of it.

Gotabaya, in response, capitalized on his credentials as a military man known for getting things done, pointing to his role in defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers and ending Sri Lanka’s civil war. He had served as secretary to the Ministry of Defense from 2005 to 2015, in his brother’s government, through the end of the civil war, and today both Gotabaya and Mahinda are still greatly admired by many Sinhalese-Buddhists as courageous leaders and war heroes. Gotabaya almost certainly would have won without the Easter bombings, and a victory by his opponent, Sajith Premadasa, the ruling coalition’s candidate, would have constituted a big upset.

Since returning to office, Gotabaya has ruled ruthlessly, causing consternation among human rights activists, minority groups and others. Still, after years of rudderless coalition government, the Sri Lankan electorate yearned for decisive leadership, and Gotabaya and his family remain quite popular among Sinhalese voters.

The Ethnic Conflict

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s civil war was a longstanding ethnic conflict over state power, a conflict that still hasn’t been resolved today. Ethnic Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhist, constitute the overwhelming majority—about 75 percent—of the country’s population. Tamils and Muslims are the largest minority groups. Since Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948, Sinhalese have always dominated the state’s institutions, including the police and the military. In contrast, Tamils, who make up just 11 percent of the country’s population, have faced widespread discrimination. They have had their land forcibly appropriated by the state and their language denigrated. They have been deprived of educational and employment opportunities through discriminatory policies. In 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983, mobs of Sinhalese targeted Tamils in violent pogroms. Black July, as the series of riots and pogroms against Tamils that occurred in July 1983 is known, led to thousands of deaths and mass displacement, and is widely considered to be the start of the civil war.

The rise of Tamil militancy throughout the 1970s culminated in the emergence of the Tamil Tigers, which fought an insurgency against the government from the early-1980s until 2009, seeking to create a separate Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The Tigers were well-resourced, disciplined and ruthless. They pioneered suicide bombing, conscripted child soldiers and committed other serious human rights violations.

Over the course of the conflict, both sides committed serious wartime abuses. But during the final campaign overseen by Mahinda and Gotabaya, Sri Lankan government forces are credibly accused of a range of abuses, including the deliberate shelling of hospitals, enforced disappearances, targeting civilians intentionally and mass rape. By the time the civil war ended, massive numbers of Tamil civilians had been killed, as well as almost all the Tigers’ leadership, who are widely and credibly thought to have been killed extrajudicially, both throughout the war and during its bloody finish.

TD 2Sri Lankan soldiers remove debris after anti-Muslim riots in Digana, Sri Lanka, March 6, 2018 (AP photo by Pradeep Pathiran).

In the years that followed the end of the fighting, rather than seeking to reconcile a fractured country, Mahinda Rajapaksa prioritized economic growth and governed increasingly as an autocrat. The impunity that characterized the end of the war carried over into the postwar period, and Sri Lanka became one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Self-censorship became more common, as the state cracked down on civil society and imposed new limits on free speech. Activists and others at odds with the state were targeted by notorious gangs of kidnappers, many of them snatched off the street into white vans. Corruption and nepotism were huge issues, with Mahinda, his brothers Gotabaya and Basil, his sons, and high-ranking government officials accused of stealing a total of $18 billion from the country’s coffers, among other concerns.

To defeat Mahinda at the polls, his opponents formed a broad and diverse coalition to back Sirisena, and snatched a surprising victory from the rising authoritarian. Sirisena’s campaign focused largely on curbing corruption and improving governance. Although the government subsequently committed to a broad transitional justice agenda later that year, there was never any electoral mandate for that program.

Throughout Sirisena’s presidency, ethnic tensions remained a significant issue. Muslims were targeted by the state and others, including in massive riots in 2018, when Sinhalese-Buddhist mobs burned and vandalized mosques and homes and attacked scores of Muslims, killing at least two. In the wake of the Easter bombings, too, police and the military reportedly stood by as mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes were torched and vandalized. There is a widespread perception that Sri Lanka’s state security personnel allowed the violence to happen—and, yet again, perpetrators have not been held accountable.

The lines between state-led violence and community-driven attacks are often blurred in these kinds of communal riots in Sri Lanka. State actors have actively participated in pogroms going back decades, and in some instances, state security personnel have reportedly acted as orchestrators or organizers. On numerous other occasions, state security personnel looked the other way and allowed community-driven violence to occur or continue. In all these cases, minority communities are sent a clear message: The law is not applied equally in Sri Lanka, and the state is unwilling, or unable, to protect them.

When the surges of violence die down, Tamils and Muslims are left to contend with other types of discrimination. In the wake of the Easter attacks, non-Muslim Sri Lankans boycotted Muslims places of business, and more recently they have circulated false rumors blaming Muslims for spreading the coronavirus. The state, for its part, has targeted Muslims unjustly under the pretext of an investigation into the Easter bombings. Further, the government’s decision to enforce “mandatory cremation” for coronavirus victims, despite the fact that cremation is forbidden in Islam, has reinforced the widespread sense that an anti-Muslim campaign—one that enjoys the backing of the state—is underway.

Meanwhile, the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the historically Tamil regions where most of the fighting occurred during the war, remain heavily militarized. The military, which is almost entirely Sinhalese, regularly intervenes in civilian life there, at times even determining where Tamils can live. It also plays a large role in the agricultural and tourism sectors, depriving civilians of sorely needed economic opportunities. To be sure, the militarization of civic space is an issue throughout the country, as postwar demilitarization has yet to occur. But it’s noticeably worse in these provinces, fueling resentment among the civilian population and making Tamils feel like they are essentially living under military occupation.

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Gotabaya’s new government, meanwhile, has made it clear that it truly does not care about symbolic gestures of unity, preferring instead to send the message that Sri Lanka is a land for Sinhalese Buddhists. On Feb. 4, Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, the government decided against including a Tamil version of the national anthem in its celebrations, a practice introduced by the previous government as a show of good faith to the Tamil minority. At the same time, Gotabaya has extended policies that seek to establish Sri Lanka’s identity as an exclusively Sinhalese-Buddhist state. A continued process of “Sinhalization” in historically Tamil areas is supplanting local heritage with Sinhalese culture, through government programs to change the names of villages, build Buddhist shrines at Hindu religious sites, and offer land grants to Sinhalese migrants. Sinhalization is also taking place in the Eastern Province, which includes significant Tamil, Muslim and, more recently, Sinhalese populations. The military’s prominent and sustained presence in these locations further strengthens this process of cultural transformation.

Discarding Transitional Justice

In 2015, Sirisena’s government co-sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka that stressed the need for a comprehensive transitional justice agenda, including a truth commission, an accountability mechanism and offices to handle both disappearances and reparations. The move inspired hope that the country’s new leaders would pursue the postwar reconciliation processes Mahinda had neglected.

Yet in the years that followed, the government sought and was granted two extensions on its 2015 commitments, in the form of other co-sponsored resolutions. Gotabaya has gone even further: In February, his government announced that Sri Lanka would be withdrawing from the resolution entirely.

The reality is that Sri Lanka’s ambitious transitional justice process had been in trouble for years. It’s far from clear that the previous government, outside of a small collection of well-meaning individuals, ever intended to comply with those U.N. resolutions. The previous government did succeed in establishing an Office on Missing Persons and an Office for Reparations, although these bodies have yet to produce major results. The Office on Missing Persons, for example, still has not traced a single missing person. Besides, the body is not empowered to legally hold perpetrators to account.

The current administration has stated that it will pursue reconciliation on its own terms, yet such an assertion lacks credibility. Under Gotabaya, there’s been no real talk of establishing a legitimate truth commission or, most controversially, an accountability mechanism. On the contrary, military officers who are alleged war criminals, such as Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, continue to be promoted; Silva is currently leading the government’s coronavirus response efforts. Relatedly, Sri Lanka has shown no signs that it has any interest in reforming its security sector, something that’s urgently needed. After all, Sri Lankan security personnel are responsible for ongoing acts of torture and sexual violence; absent real reform, these extremely distressing trends will undoubtedly continue in the coming years.

The truth is that the Sri Lankan government has never adequately explained the processes of the U.N. Human Rights Council to the Sinhalese majority—nor has it explained the urgent need for transitional justice and building a durable peace. The loudest voices making this case have come from civil society efforts, including the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, a group of civil society leaders that carried out wide-ranging public consultations pertaining to transitional justice mechanisms. Despite the fact that the task force was appointed by Wickremesinghe, its findings were largely ignored by the coalition government.

To this day, many Sinhalese lack an understanding of the importance of transitional justice and the need to finally resolve the ethnic conflict. Why, they ask, should the majority community move to address Tamil grievances when the Tigers lost the war? These Sri Lankans view Sinhalese soldiers not as possible human rights violators to be investigated, but as war heroes who, having defeated an insidious terrorist insurgency, should be venerated. According to this view, holding Sri Lankan military personnel accountable would not just tarnish the reputation of the military, it would tarnish the reputation of the entire country, and any attempts to do so, or to address wartime abuses of power more generally, are looked at askance.

** HOLD TO GO WITH STORY SLUGGED SRI LANKA SLOWLY HEALING BY KRISHAN FRANCIS**   FILE-In this Monday, April 6, 2015, file photo, Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil women sit holding placards with portraits of their missing relatives as they protest out side a railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Seven years since the end of a brutal civil war, Sri Lanka faces the daunting twin challenges of uniting ethnic communities polarized due to decades of acrimony and violence while also dealing with the divisive issue of addressing war crimes allegations. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)Tamil women hold portraits of missing relatives to advocate for a post-war reconciliation process, in Colombo, April 6, 2015 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

“It has been fed into the psyche of the Sinhalese that the Tamil Tigers were terrorists—whatever it shall mean—and they were trying to divide a Sinhala-Buddhist country, to the prejudice of the Sinhalese,” said C.V. Wigneswaran, the secretary general of the recently created Tamil People’s National Alliance who is running for a seat in parliament, in an email interview. “The irony of all this is if the Sinhalese feel so strongly about the innocence of their soldiers, they should allow impartial investigation into the conduct of the Sri Lankan soldiers during the war, so that they could clear their names,” Wigneswaran adds. Nevertheless, Gotabaya, too, has promised to protect the nation’s “war heroes.”

Yet as long as the country fails to follow through with a credible and comprehensive transitional justice program, a return to another period of open ethnic violence at some point in the future cannot be ruled out. Despite those risks, the prevalence of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism makes it politically fraught for any party or leader to be seen making concessions to minority communities. These dynamics mean that talking about issues like Tamil and Muslim rights, or a more inclusive Sri Lanka, would require extraordinary political courage. Worse still, political calculations aside, there is little evidence to suggest that Sinhalese political elites would even like to implement these bold changes.
Parliamentary Elections Amid COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is only making all of this worse. Gotabaya dissolved Parliament on March 2, six months ahead of schedule, to pave the way for an early election that was initially slated for April 25. Less than three weeks later, the National Election Commission postponed the election due to concerns over COVID-19, first to June 20 before again being moved to August. Though it’s unlikely, there are concerns that the election will be postponed again after a recent spike in coronavirus cases raised alarms.

If elections proceed on Aug. 5, Sri Lanka will have gone more than five months without a functional Parliament. That is extremely worrisome and bodes ill for the country’s democracy. Sri Lanka’s constitution states that a new Parliament must be sworn in within three months of the old one being dissolved, meaning by June 2 in this case. Various civil society groups and opposition parties filed petitions protesting the postponements on constitutional grounds, but Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court dismissed all the cases.

Some political observers have suggested that Gotabaya should reconvene the Parliament he disbanded in March, an option he has rejected largely because he doesn’t want parliamentary oversight over the executive. He can wield more power as long as the current Parliament remains dissolved. The fact that Gotabaya has been able to rule without checks on his authority for so long sets a terrible precedent for the country’s messy and majoritarian democracy.

Gotabaya’s government has used this power to launch a heavy-handed response to COVID-19, relying excessively on the military. Its leadership in the coronavirus response has led to unnecessary arrests, detentions and the further shrinking of civic space. A senior human rights activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety, told me that although Tamils residing in the north knew that daily life for civilians would worsen during a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, “the pandemic has fast-tracked this, unfortunately. Militarization is in your face now.”

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In this political context, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party could have a pivotal role to play, were it not in disarray. After a bitter feud at the top, the party selected Premadasa over former Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate in last year’s election, and the rivalry between the two men has persisted since his defeat. As a result, Premadasa is now leading the United People's Front, a new political alliance that includes a breakaway group from the United National Party and is competing for its own seats in parliament.

A weak and rudderless United National Party amid a divided opposition is bad news for proponents of democracy, making it easier for the Rajapaksas to win more control of Parliament. To have any chance of serving as a significant check on the rule of the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka’s unwieldly political opposition would need to remain united. Yet the space to create such a movement seems far narrower now. To be clear, even if the United National Party or others opposed to the Rajapaksas’ rule regained power, the longstanding issues pertaining to the ethnic conflict would almost certainly continue to be ignored. That said, continued Rajapaksa rule will make the situation even worse.
The Road Ahead

The early days of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency have done nothing to allay widespread worries, in Sri Lanka and internationally, about how he would govern. He has clamped down on dissent, and his government has continued to disregard the root causes of the country’s unresolved ethnic conflict. Healing Sri Lanka’s war wounds will require an adequate transitional justice program, including a truth commission, an accountability mechanism, some form of power-sharing arrangement with minority ethnic groups and meaningful reparations. None of that seems viable right now. Even worse, the Rajapaksas are deepening the country’s already persistent ethnic and religious divides.

There’s a real possibility that the Rajapaksas and their allies will emerge from next month’s election with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. If that happens, they will be able to change the constitution at will, making it even easier for them to dismantle the country’s institutions, and to do so with a veneer of legitimacy. Even if they do not pass that two-thirds threshold, it’s widely believed that the Rajapaksas will still have a comfortable majority to tighten their grip on power.

As flawed as its governance has been, Sri Lanka has always been a democracy, albeit on majoritarian terms. Mahinda Rajapaksa took the country to the edge of full-on authoritarianism as president. His brother Gotabaya, who also proudly espouses Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism, could go even further. The future of Sri Lankan democracy is now very much at stake.

*Taylor Dibbert is an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

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