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
Govt tabled bill in parliament to remove constitutional checks on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Cabinet 2 Sept approved draft 20th constitutional amendment to replace 19th amendment which curbs presidential powers; new amendment would give president sweeping powers, including to appoint and control all state institutions, appoint and dismiss ministers, head ministries, dissolve parliament one year after its election, as well as full legal immunity. Proposed amendment sparked criticism from opposition, but also within ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, prompting PM Mahinda Rajapaksa 12 Sept to appoint committee to consider changes. Govt 22 Sept tabled unchanged amendment bill in parliament amid protests from opposition. Supreme Court 29 Sept began consideration of petitions filed by opposition and civil society against amendment. Gotabaya 25 Sept directed officials to implement his future verbal orders as if they were formal written directives, adding that those who fail to do so “will face stern action”. Cabinet 3 Sept appointed nine-member “experts’ committee” headed by Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and featuring notable Sinhala hardliners to draft new constitution; State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs Sarath Weerasekera quoted 6 Sept in support of new constitution removing “detrimental aspects” of 13th amendment, which devolved power in 1987 to satisfy in part Tamil autonomy demands; during virtual summit with Mahinda, Indian PM Modi 26 Sept repeated longstanding calls for implementation of 13th amendment; Mahinda’s separate statement same day ignored the issue. Cabinet 29 Sept approved proposal by Mahinda to ban cattle slaughter, an industry run mostly by Muslims; imports of beef will still be allowed. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet 14 Sept criticised draft 20th amendment and appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials “allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity” and called for immediate end to “surveillance and intimidation of victims [of civil war], their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers”; Sri Lanka 15 Sept dismissed Bachelet’s criticism of amendment as “unwarranted” and rejected “false and unsubstantiated allegations”. UK 17 Sept expressed concern over lack of “meaningful progress” in govt’s commitment to transitional 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.
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.