Sri Lanka: Victims the losers in Sinhala Buddhist landslide

By Ravindu Alwis

A landslide parliamentary election result in Sri Lanka for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party is far from a triumph for democracy because it dangerously entrenches a virulent brand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that has led to violence in the past.

On Sunday (9), his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa took oath as prime minister, at a ceremony fully crowded with Buddhist monks, held at the ancient Buddhist Vihara in Kelaniya, a temple that claims to be "one of the cradles" of Sinhala Buddhist civilisation.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, retired rear admiral Sarath Weerasekara,  a Sinhala hardliner who was elected to the new parliament summarised the character of the new government. 'All what needed is discipline and patriotism. I think both these factors are now in the government'.

This election is a rare occasion when the government in power does not rely on the minority parties to govern, enabling it to forge ahead with its majoritarian militarised ideology of “Sinhala first”. It helps that the opposition in the south of the island has been decimated, while the media, human rights lawyers, NGO’s and Muslim politicians have already been largely coerced into submission.

One alarming indicator should be the possibility of a Sinhalese Buddhist monk entering the parliament who has a history of hate speech against Muslims and signed a cooperation agreement with Ashin Wirathu in Myanmar whose role in the atrocities there is well known.

Two-thirds majority

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won a staggering 145 seats in parliament in the August 5 the polls, more than most observers expected. Together with traditional political allies, the Rajapaksas will in effect have their two-thirds majority in parliament needed to change the country’s Constitution and remove the limited checks and balances it contains to further consolidate power. More worrying is the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), with 54 seats has never differentiated itself ideologically from the SLPP. The new parliament will overwhelmingly comprise of a brand of right wing nationalist politics that simply doesn’t see a need for justice and accountability for the civil war, or even for minority rights. A handful of representatives of small Tamil parties will be left advocating for accountability for the past, vastly outnumbered. It is worth recalling, accountability was something the international community once encouraged in Sri Lanka but is now increasingly silent on.

It’s been a story of party fracturing and divisions. The two largest winners are break-away groups from the old parties, though by no means represent new ideas. The former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, lost his seat for the first time in a humiliating close to a long political career. His UNP party was devastated, with the breakaway group led by the son of a former President, taking almost all its votes away. This trouncing reflects the voters’ extreme frustration with Ranil’s period in office (2015-19) as part of a fractious coalition government. Though Ranil had the backing of the international community and civil society for promised reforms, he bungled the process so badly that it has led to some questioning if he was ever serious in the first place. A select few alleged to have committed crimes and corruption were briefly pursued in what were wrongly dubbed emblematic war related cases and then the process fizzled out, with the police investigators put in jail instead. This spectacular failure only allowed the Rajapaksas to return to power in more glory, riding on the ticket of the victimised “war heroes”. Even when Ranil’s government was faced with a coup and swore blindly they would punish those who collaborated with it, nobody was ever held accountable. This led to a perception that his government was just deal-making so as to be afforded the same protection when they were in opposition.

This is not just a failure of one man’s leadership – rather a manifestation of entrenched impunity enabled by a failed political class, cosily supported by a westernised Colombo civil society elite that disproportionately has the ear of donors and diplomats. One thing that should now emerge is a thorough soul searching on the part of those human rights activists who supported the UNP government – they cannot simply blame Ranil and Sirisena for what went wrong. Also a thorough review needs to be undertaken by the United Nations and those countries that financed and backed Sri Lanka’s failed transitional justice process with tax payers money. Why did it fail? How could they all get it so wrong? Could they have pushed harder to achieve results instead of allowing the Government to buy time in Geneva? Moving forward, who will now support the victims who once had so much faith in the international community that they put themselves at huge risk, protesting, documenting, recording complaints and testifying in court. Will the international community just retreat to a policy of looking for “moderates” they can work with and trying to woo them with engagement.

Party of Sinhalese interests

The vote in the south of the island reflects to an invisible extent the deepening hold of Sinhala Buddhist extremism. Covid19 meant there were less big elections rallies; campaigning occurred in small “pocket meetings” at a village level, often based around Buddhist Temples and local supporters’ houses. Though the election commission said that religious institutions should not be used for politics, the candidates would visit the temples to receive blessings and then the monk would preach on their behalf. It’s in this setting that racist anti-Muslim hate speech flourished, benefitting the SLPP which has consistently made clear that it’s the party of Sinhalese interests. Likewise in social media, there was more anti-Muslim sentiment expressed – on FaceBook and according to one report in closed whatsapp groups.

For the first time, Sinhalese led parties made inroads into traditionally Tamil areas such as the Vanni, the former LTTE stronghold. Tamil representation in the East is also severely diminished. The rifts in Tamil politics have been and will be exploited by the Sinhalese politicians to the benefit of all who do not want justice delivered. The largest group, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), did badly, reduced from 16 to 10 seats. Again this reflects frustration with the the lack of progress on justice and accountability for the war and post-war violations as well as the failure to provide jobs and livelihoods. The TNA supported the Ranil government, to the extent of denying scores of cases of ongoing abduction and torture of Tamils, and that failure to advance Tamil rights cost it dearly. The fact that seats went to the Tamil Makkal Thesiya Koottani (TMTK) led by former Chief Minister and the Tamil National Peoples' Front (TNPF), which contested as ACTC, who have spoken openly about genocide and the need for an internationalised justice process, indicates the enduring deep seated need for justice that will not go away however much repression is meted out. The families of the disappeared spent 1250 days protesting on the roadsides for their right to truth, while the Office of Missing Persons established offices but not one soldier was ever questioned about what happened to their children. 

Even before he had total control of parliament, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had already consolidated power, through appointing his former military comrades and trusted civil servants aided by supportive business partners. The establishment of mililtarised Presidential Task Forces already threatened to create parallel structures of governance with fewer restraints. The President now says he will appoint – by Sri Lankan standards – a relatively small cabinet of ministers. He’s in the enviable position of not needing to woo politicians to cross over with ministerships.

The question remains how important the cabinet will be in decision making when it appears that Gotabaya Rajapaksa prefers the paradigm of deploying the military to oversee administration. It is worth recalling his role in Matale in 1989 as the district military coordinator in charge of operations to crush the JVP insurgency – a time when hundreds of Sinhala youth were executed or disappeared without trace.

Sri Lanka is a country that’s experienced three periods of mass atrocity in which tens of thousands perished each time – the President was actively involved in a command position during two of those periods. He now has extraordinary control over all the institutions of state in Sri Lanka.

The victory of the Rajapaksa brothers has already thrown the ultra nationalist forces into frenzied jubilation, increasing the legitimate fears of the Tamil and Muslim communities.The new power configuration, which guarantees a significant political role for the military will decisively put the question of state crimes to rest and reinvigorate supremacist sentiments among the Sinhala Buddhist population as never before.

Hence, the outcome of Sri Lanka's parliamentary election provides irrefutable evidence of a thriving ethnocracy than of a functional pluralist democracy.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.