Trouble brews in post-election Sri Lanka

The hardline approach of the new president and a failed reconciliation process threaten to stir ethnic tensions.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gestures while addressing the nation at the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura on November 18, 2019 [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Two weeks after the election of hardliner Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, the prospects for justice and reconciliation between the different communities on the island lie in tatters. The victory of Gota, as he is commonly known, sent shockwaves across the Tamil-dominated northeast – where memories of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s brutal presidency, marked by mass atrocities and enforced disappearances, remain fresh. 

Gota, who served as defence secretary between 2005 and 2015, stands accused of war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war (1983-2009).

The Tamil community were hoping for a victory of Sajith Premadasa, the deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP), who was seen by Tamils as the “lesser evil“. While Premadasa also adopted nationalist rhetoric during his campaign, vowing to protect military chief Shavendra Silva from war crimes accusations and pledging to give prominence to Buddhism, minorities were terrified at the prospect of a return to the brutal authoritarianism of the Rajapaksas.

Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims went to the polls in large numbers, with the vast majority of the northeastern vote going to Premadasa. But it was not enough for his victory. His opponent, Gota, swept the Sinhala south, winning the election with a whopping majority.

After the vote, members of the Sinhalese majority levelled accusations of disloyalty and separatism against Tamils – once again exposing the deep fault lines running between the two major ethnic groups on the island.

The faint hopes for justice and reconciliation during the term of Gota’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, encouraged by over-enthusiastic Western governments and a Colombo-based elite, disconnected from ground realities and preoccupied with promoting superficial processes, are now gone. Sri Lanka is slipping back into chauvinistic politics which threatens to destabilise the country.

Rising fears

The new president wasted no time reaffirming his “strongman” credentials, immediately rallying his Sinhala Buddhist base after the election.

In his inaugural speech on November 18, he pledged to lead the government based on “Buddhist philosophy” and to support the Sinhalese culture and Buddhist heritage and highlighted his role in the civil war.

The inauguration ceremony was held at a Buddhist temple in the northern city of Anuradhapura built by Sinhala ruler Dutugamunu, who defeated the Tamil Chola King Ellalan and united the entire island under Sinhala rule. 

Gota also moved against those he saw as a threat to his government. He imposed a travel ban on police officers involved in investigations of alleged crimes perpetrated by his family after one of them fled the country to Switzerland after the election. Following his escape, an employee of the Swiss visa section was detained and questioned, a worrying development which could endanger the work of foreign embassies on the island.

Tamil and Sinhala media have also faced increasing pressure since the vote. Several journalists were forced to hand their computers to the police over unsubstantiated accusations of spreading hate speech. Tamil activists have ramped up their security protocols and some are reconsidering their continued presence in the country. Self-censorship has become the norm once again.

Meanwhile, hate speech, particularly against Tamils, has exploded on social media, with no action taken against those posting. In the centre of the country, Tamils were attacked by Sinhalese, who accused them of voting against Gota.

It is quite clear that under the new president, Sri Lanka will continue to embrace the persistent chauvinism that has dominated its political scene since independence from Britain in 1948.

The main idea behind it is that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and those of different faith or ethnicity migrated from elsewhere and are not part of the native population of the island. Today, the Sri Lankan constitution gives Sinhala Buddhism primacy, guaranteeing it the “foremost place” and entrusting the state with protecting and fostering it. State institutions, the military and the economy are also dominated by a Sinhala supremacist ethos. 

Meanwhile, those perceived as “outsiders” – Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims, Christians and others – are expected to submit to Sinhala Buddhist primacy on the island and relent to being treated as subordinate. Any resistance to their inferior status is seen as a threat to Sinhala Buddhist supremacy in Sri Lanka and viciously attacked by the majority.

A defiant Tamil community

It was against this chauvinism of the Sinhalese majority that the Tamils rose in rebellion in the 20th century. The long-running war for Tamil self-rule culminated in the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. A yet unknown number of Tamil civilians died in the final months of the war. The United Nations says there could have been more than 70,000 deaths during this time, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000.

Calls for justice for repeated atrocities committed against Tamils by the state have fallen on deaf ears. Nevertheless, families of the forcefully disappeared during the conflict continue to raise their voices, defying a state that denies that crimes were committed against the Tamil community.

Gota’s victory is seen as a major setback by Tamils, but has not discouraged them. Ten days after his inauguration, Tamils turned out in droves to commemorate Maaveerar Naal, the Tamil National Remembrance Day, in moving ceremonies at multiple locations across the northeast.

This, despite harassment by local authorities, arrests of a number of individuals involved in preparations for the commemoration and fears of a crackdown. Every main Tamil newspaper on the island covered the day on their front pages, sometimes with emotional tributes. 

In Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the Tamil Eelam administration, thousands took part in a ceremony, laying flowers and lighting torches at a burial ground for LTTE fighters destroyed by the army. Amid tears and wailing by those mourning the dead, songs were played promising the establishment of Tamil Eelam, as the crowd sang along. The defiance was palpable.

As I joined families filing past the fragments of headstones, one man, whose sister was an LTTE fighter, killed in the fighting, told me, “We will not forget and our children won’t forget. For as long as we exist as a people, the struggle for freedom from oppression will continue.” Ten years after the end of the LTTE, the resistance to the state continues to define the politics of Tamils.

A bleak future

When Sirisena of the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, Sri Lanka was prematurely hailed as a success story, as the United States and the European Union swiftly re-engaged with the government, restarting trade and military cooperation, which had suffered severely under the first Rajapaksa reign.

While the then-government made a plethora of pledges to enact political reforms and establish an accountability mechanism, it failed to act on them. The enthusiastic coddling of Sri Lanka by the international community post-2015 undermined the urgency for progress, by removing the pressure brought about by international criticism, which had made Sri Lanka commit to those pledges in the first place.

The openness of the last five years under the internationally supported but shaky UNP-SLFP government is seen by many Tamils as an abnormality. Repression has been the norm in Sri Lanka and Gota’s victory is a return to that norm. 

The events of November once again revealed the fundamental problem of the country and its nation-building project. The Sri Lankan political system has failed to give minority communities proper representation, while the state continues to promote an exclusionary national identity.

Gota has reiterated that he will not focus on political grievances, instead putting his efforts into the development of Tamil regions. This will not appease the Tamils. Without a fundamental rethinking of the Sri Lankan state, national identity and the foremost place given to Sinhala Buddhism, the conflict that has plagued this island since independence will continue to fester.

While there is no appetite among Tamils for a renewed war, the unfettered Sinhala Buddhist nationalist agenda touted by Gota, expected to include renewed efforts to change the demographic makeup of the northeast, will fuel ethnic conflict and division. 

As this government has made it abundantly clear that it will not initiate the necessary reforms to accommodate minorities, the international community must condition its engagement with Sri Lanka on progress on justice and political devolution. Without these political changes, Sri Lanka will remain a failed nation and a divided island.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the positions Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa have occupied. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.