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.
Sri Lanka’s president has named a veteran anti-Muslim agitator to head a legal reform task force. Critics have called the move “incomprehensible”, but it is readily understood as a way to divert discontent among the government’s Sinhala Buddhist base toward an embattled minority.
Originally published in The Wire
President suspended parliament for one month amid growing tensions within ruling coalition, as debt crisis, inflation and looming food shortages led to rising popular discontent. President Rajapaksa 12 Dec prorogued parliament until 18 Jan 2022 without giving clear reasons, triggering claims from opposition suspension was designed to prevent publication of reports by parliamentary corruption oversight committees; move comes after parliament 10 Dec approved govt’s budget with two-thirds majority, despite signs of increasing tensions within ruling coalition. Economic hardship deepened. Fitch Ratings 17 Dec became latest credit ratings agency to downgrade country, citing “increased probability of default’’; agency downgraded govt’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to ‘CC’ from ‘CCC’, lowest tier before default. Inflation hit record level of 11%; vegetable prices continued to rise sharply during month, as key food items, especially imports, proved increasingly hard to find and beyond large numbers of citizens’ income, raising concerns about rising malnutrition. Concerns also persisted over size of upcoming rice harvest and future yields on tea, following six-month ban on import of chemical fertiliser. President Rajapaksa 22 Dec replaced chief civil servant in agriculture ministry, one day after he warned publicly of impending food crisis. Sinhalese prisoners in Badulla 17 Dec attacked four Muslim detainees held on suspicion of links to network behind 2019 Easter bombings. In effort to placate concerns among European states about continued use of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), govt took series of actions. Following green light from attorney general, Puttalam High Court 15 Dec granted bail to Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem, detained under PTA for seven months on spurious reading of one of his poems. Colombo High Court 2 Dec acquitted prominent Muslim politician Azath Salley, who had been detained under the PTA, based on edited copy of speech he gave. Court during month gave bail to ten Tamil youth, arrested in May 2021 for publicly commemorating deaths of Tamils during war in violation of court order. Govt expressed outrage following 3 Dec mob lynching of Sinhalese manager of factory in Pakistani town of Sialkot (see Pakistan), but voiced appreciation for PM Imran Kahn’s promised of swift justice.
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
Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations and the rule of law. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its pressure on Colombo to strengthen rights-respecting governance while making it clear that it will not support programs which encourage political repression or discrimination.
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.