Trouble brewing in post-election Sri Lanka

Wednesday 11th December 2019 05:38 EST

Colombo: Weeks after the election of hardliner Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president of Sri Lanka, the prospects for justice and reconciliation between the different communities on the island lie in tatters. The victory of Gota, as he is commonly known, sent shockwaves across the Tamil-dominated northeast - where memories of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa's brutal presidency, marked by mass atrocities and enforced disappearances, remain fresh. Gota, who served as defence secretary between 2005 and 2015, stands accused of war crimes committed during Sri Lanka's civil war (1983-2009).

The Tamil community were hoping for a victory of Sajith Premadasa, the deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP), who was seen by Tamils as the "lesser evil". Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims went to the polls in large numbers, with the vast majority of the northeastern vote going to Premadasa. But it was not enough for his victory. His opponent, Gota, swept the Sinhala south, winning the election with a whopping majority.

After the vote, members of the Sinhalese majority levelled accusations of disloyalty and separatism against Tamils - once again exposing the deep fault lines running between the two major ethnic groups on the island. The faint hopes for justice and reconciliation during the term of Gota's predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, encouraged by over-enthusiastic Western governments and a Colombo-based elite are now gone. Sri Lanka is slipping back into chauvinistic politics which threatens to destabilise the country.

Rising fears

The new president wasted no time reaffirming his "strongman" credentials, immediately rallying his Sinhala Buddhist base after the election. In his inaugural speech on November 18, he pledged to lead the government based on "Buddhist philosophy" and to support the Sinhalese culture and Buddhist heritage and highlighted his role in the civil war.

Gota also moved against those he saw as a threat to his government. He imposed a travel ban on police officers involved in investigations of alleged crimes perpetrated by his family after one of them fled the country to Switzerland after the election. Following his escape, an employee of the Swiss visa section was detained and questioned, a worrying development which could endanger the work of foreign embassies on the island.

Tamil and Sinhala media have also faced increasing pressure since the vote. Several journalists were forced to hand their computers to the police over unsubstantiated accusations of spreading hate speech. Tamil activists have ramped up their security protocols and some are reconsidering their continued presence in the country. Self-censorship has become the norm once again.

Meanwhile, hate speech, particularly against Tamils, has exploded on social media, with no action taken against those posting. In the centre of the country, Tamils were attacked by Sinhalese, who accused them of voting against Gota.

It is quite clear that under the new president, Sri Lanka will continue to embrace the persistent chauvinism that has dominated its political scene since independence from Britain in 1948.

The main idea behind it is that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and those of different faith or ethnicity migrated from elsewhere and are not part of the native population of the island. Today, the Sri Lankan constitution gives Sinhala Buddhism primacy, guaranteeing it the "foremost place" and entrusting the state with protecting and fostering it. State institutions, the military and the economy are also dominated by a Sinhala supremacist ethos.

Meanwhile, those perceived as "outsiders" - Tamils, Tamil-speaking Muslims, Christians and others - are expected to submit to Sinhala Buddhist primacy on the island and relent to being treated as subordinate. Any resistance to their inferior status is seen as a threat to Sinhala Buddhist supremacy in Sri Lanka and viciously attacked by the majority.

comments powered by Disqus

to the free, weekly Asian Voice email newsletter