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.
The UN Human Rights Council will soon discuss Sri Lanka, where the new government has scotched truth and justice efforts related to the 1983-2009 civil war. The Council should demand accountability for past crimes but stress that Colombo’s present policies may spark further deadly conflict.
Originally published in The Wire
Country commemorated deadly 2019 Easter attacks as authorities furthered “anti-extremism” agenda; meanwhile, govt bill on Colombo mega project sparked legal challenges. As country marked second anniversary of Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired Easter suicide bombings that killed over 260 people, govt continued to pursue “anti-extremism” agenda. Activists 8 April filed lawsuit challenging constitutionality of new “deradicalisation” regulations introduced in March that allow extended detention without charge. Govt 10 April formally proscribed 11 “extremist” groups, including range of local Salafi groups and Muslim charity funded by two suicide bombers of April 2019 attacks. Attorney general 20 April indicted 16 Muslim men detained without trial for almost two years for their alleged involvement in Dec 2018 vandalism of Buddhist statues in town of Mawanella. Police 24 April arrested Rishad Bathiudeen, Muslim legislator and leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Party, in connection with 2019 bombings. Cabinet 28 April approved ban on burqas and other religious face-coverings on “national security” grounds. Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith 18 April claimed Easter attacks were “politically driven”, and the victims “attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it […] to strengthen their political power.” Opposition MPs 20 April alleged govt was covering up evidence indicating contacts between military intelligence officials loyal to President Rajapaksa, then in opposition, and bombers before Easter attacks. PM Rajapaksa 9 April introduced legally unprecedented resolution in Parliament to implement recommendations of presidential commission on “political victimisation” to dismiss ongoing murder, corruption and other criminal cases against Rajapaksa family members and loyalists and to prosecute investigators, prosecutors and witnesses. Meanwhile, govt 8 April introduced bill granting unprecedented legal autonomy to Colombo port city, its multi-billion-dollar flagship economic project financed by Chinese company; more than dozen organisations and opposition parties challenged bill in lawsuits filed at Supreme Court. Former minister and ruling party MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told court on 20 April bill would create “a haven for money laundering” and 15 April criticised project for establishing “Chinese colony”; Rajapakshe alleged President Rajapaksa next day threatened him for his criticisms.
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.
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
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.
Ten years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled 1,500km through ex-combat zones. They found a population finding ways to cope with their traumatic experiences and an extraordinary array of monuments to the war.