Sri Lankan politics are increasingly volatile. The government is reluctant to address the legacy of civil war and authoritarian rule. Inter-ethnic relations remain fragile, with Sinhala majoritarianism resisting any accommodation of Tamil political claims and militant Buddhist groups’ campaign of violence and hate speech against Muslims posing a considerable threat to the country’s stability. Building on Crisis Group’s work to address the humanitarian and human rights crises of the civil war’s last phase, we aim to strengthen communal relations among Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists, while advocating for governance reforms that are essential to lasting peace.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government appears headed for a constitutional crisis that could lastingly damage Sri Lanka’s political institutions and aggravate conflict risks. Firm and concerted action by the country’s international partners could help break the impasse, which comes amid rising authoritarianism and anti-Muslim propaganda.
Supreme Court (SC) ruling granted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa authority to govern without parliamentary oversight, while Gotabaya’s appointment of two new bodies with far-reaching powers signalled further steps toward authoritarianism and hard-line Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. SC 2 June dismissed civil society and opposition parties’ petitions challenging constitutionality of 20 June legislative polls and dissolution of parliament; ruling allows Gotabaya to govern without parliamentary oversight for at least another two months, as Election Commission 10 June again rescheduled elections for 5 August. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 28 June promised voters that, if elected, his ruling-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party would defeat “domestic and international conspiracies” allegedly backed by main opposition parties. Gotabaya 2 June appointed two task forces headed by Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne: one entirely made up of military and police officials with broad mandate to turn Sri Lanka into “a virtuous, disciplined and lawful society”; the other composed exclusively of Sinhalese Buddhists charged with “preserving the historical heritage of Sri Lanka” in Tamil- and Muslim-majority Eastern province. Prominent civil society group Friday Forum 13 June called for abolition of military task force arguing that it could be first step toward “military dictatorship” while leader of Tamil National Alliance R. Sampanthan 17 June said intention of all-Sinhalese task force is to “convert the Eastern province into majority Sinhalese areas”. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet 3 June expressed concern over clampdown on free speech. In Colombo, police 9 June raided home and seized computer of Dharisha Bastians, govt-critical journalist who fled country after Rajapaksas came to power. Colombo magistrate 25 June sharply criticised police for manipulating witness statements in case against prominent Muslim lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, detained for alleged involvement in Easter 2019 Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired terror attacks. Expert review committee presented strongly critical final report to president on proposed U.S. govt $480mn Millenium Challenge Corporation grant; U.S. embassy expressed disappointment at the “politicization and spread of disinformation” related to grant.
The devastating ISIS-inspired attacks last Easter targeting Sri Lanka’s Christians have triggered a dangerous backlash against the country’s Muslims. Colombo urgently needs to correct the intelligence failures that led to the Easter attacks and curb discriminatory practices and policies that further harm innocent Muslim communities.
The return to power of controversial former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka's prime minister is unconstitutional and destabilising. International actors should make future security and economic cooperation contingent on parliament reconvening immediately to select a prime minister through legal channels.
Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
The president has tried to weaken [Sri Lanka's Prime Minister] in many ways, including taking the police under his control. So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president.
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.
The lethal Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have stunned a country still recovering from decades of internal war. Political and religious leaders alike should reject the rhetoric of collective blame and reaffirm the island’s strained but living tradition of intercommunal amity.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.