The Rajapaksa family’s return to government has put an end to tentative efforts to address the legacy of civil war and brought in more centralised, militarised government, anchored in Sinhala majoritarianism. As Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethno-religious tensions continue to linger, the presence of hardline Sinhala nationalists in power rules out any accommodation of Tamil political claims. Once-fringe ideas of militant Buddhist groups regarding violence and hate speech against Muslims are increasingly being adopted as government policy. 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.
Twice postponed because of COVID-19, Sri Lanka's parliamentary election finally took place on 5 August. The SLPP's electoral victory should be understood not simply as a result of dissatisfaction with rival party UNP, but of the failure of its internationally-backed liberal reform agenda to gain lasting traction with Sri Lankan voters.
Originally published in LSE South Asia Centre
Ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won resounding victory in parliamentary elections, paving way for unbridled executive powers for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and increasingly Sinhala nationalist policies. Following peaceful campaign, 5 Aug legislative elections resulted in ruling party SLPP securing 145 of 225 seats in parliament, enough – together with allied parties – to achieve two-thirds majority SLPP sought in order to amend constitution and unshackle presidential powers. In prominent Buddhist temple near capital Colombo, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as PM 9 Aug. Mahinda and Gotabaya 12 Aug announced new cabinet and state ministers, giving portfolios to themselves and to three other family members; other appointees included Gotabaya’s personal lawyer as justice minister and retired admiral as foreign secretary. Cabinet 19 Aug approved repealing 19th amendment to constitution, which limits presidential powers, and established committee under justice ministry to draft replacement. In speech at opening of new parliament, Gotabaya 20 Aug promised that once 19th amendment had been replaced, govt would draft new constitution in which “priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people” and which will allow govt to make decisions freely without being influenced by “extremists”. Former Director of Police Criminal Investigations Department Shani Abeysekara remanded in custody 20 Aug accused of fabricating evidence in 2015 murder conviction; Abeysekara’s arrest widely seen as retribution for his key role investigating major criminal cases implicating senior officials in 2005-2015 Rajapaksa govt. Joint letter to Sri Lanka govt from six UN Special Rapporteurs sent in June and publicised 25 Aug expressed “grave concern over the seemingly arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention” of Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, in “what may be a reprisal for his legal work and human rights advocacy”. President 24 Aug appointed four prominent Buddhist monks to join all-Sinhalese task force on archaeological heritage in multi-ethnic eastern province. Foreign Secretary Adm. Jayantha Colombage announced Sri Lanka will adopt “India first approach” in its foreign policy and would “not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests”, despite China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka.
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.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decisive victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election reflects voters’ concerns over security, poor economic prospects and ineffective governance – but also indicates the country’s dangerous ethnic polarisation. Many worry that Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist, will energise anti-Muslim campaigning and further alienate the Tamil community.
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.