The return of the Rajapaksa brothers marks a turning point in communal harmony for the island nation.
Still reeling from the Easter terrorist attacks in April 2019, Sri Lanka has entered the new year in a tense atmosphere.
– The election of former military commander Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president and the appointment of his brother Mahinda as prime minister signals a return to strongman-style politics
– Fervent Buddhist nationalism could lead to more deadly attacks against Sri Lankan Muslims and other minority groups
– Sectarian and religious violence could damage Sri Lanka’s international standing by reducing levels of tourism and foreign investment, ultimately weakening their economy
A new year has begun, and Sri Lanka continues to reel from the devastating 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. One of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Sri Lankan history, the bombings in late April caused the deaths of at least 270 people and injured over 500 others. The significant social and political upheaval that the attacks caused has seemingly rolled over into the new year, with the election of a new strongman president and increasing anti-Muslim tensions.
FROM THE ASHES ANOTHER RAJAPAKSA RISES
The Easter attacks sent a shockwave through Sri Lankan society and signalled the end of a period of relative peace by reawakening volatile sectarian tensions. The perpetrators were members of local radical Islamic groups, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, both of which have links with the Islamic State. The attacks were highly coordinated, which led to public criticism and a Supreme Court petition that accused the government of being at fault for not pre-empting the attack. The devastating number of casualties ignited intense sectarian violence, mainly against Muslims, with Sinhala mobs attacking Muslim owned properties with petrol bombs and other projectiles.
In the November presidential elections following the April attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected with just over 50% of the vote. His campaign was closely tied to the Easter bombings: he announced his candidacy just three days after the attacks and campaigned on a platform of increasing national security. As a former defence minister and military commander, he was widely lauded for his role in winning the bloody, thirty-year civil war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Rajapaksa has used that credibility to present himself as a protector of the people and defender of the Buddhist faith. His election marked the return of the Rajapaksa dynasty into power, with Gotabaya choosing his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister.
Upon taking power, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has brought back his family’s trademark strongman tactics. He has used the Easter Bombings as a pretext to support his push for militarising the country, while simultaneously dismantling any attempts to address accountability in Sri Lanka. He has also sought out greater executive presidential power and his allies have begun repressing voices of dissent — the organisation Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka released a report in January 2020 revealing almost 70 incidents of intimidation and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, plaintiffs, academics and opposition figures.
Given that the overwhelming majority of the population are practising Buddhists, radical Buddhist nationalism has a sizeable foothold. Hardline Sri Lankan Buddhist groups follow an interpretation of the faith called Theravada Buddhism that elevates the preservation and defence of Buddhism above all else. These groups link protecting their religion with defending cultural, national and ethnic identity, and have targeted Muslim and Christian minorities with acts of violence and discrimination. This form of nationalistic Buddhism is legitimised through the constitution, which follows a majoritarian agenda that establishes the hegemony of Sinhalese Buddhism — the constitution recognises Sinhala as the national language and Buddhism as the main religion. According to Sri Lankan scholar Neil Devotta, this legitimises minority repression as a way of preserving Sinhalese culture.
The radicalisation of the perpetrators of the Easter bombing was partly inspired by the nascent anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka. After the end of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, attacks on Muslims increased as Buddhist nationalists became emboldened by government policies such as attempts to abolish halal certification of foods. In the immediate aftermath of the Easter bombings, there was a new wave of anti-Muslim riots, mostly led by Buddhist nationalist mobs, which resulted in 9 civilians being killed. All Muslim cabinet ministers, state ministers, and deputy ministers resigned from the government in June 2019 amidst allegations that they were supporting terrorism; ministers reportedly felt they had to resign to assuage fears about their community.
The newly established government is set to be short-lived as there is to be a general parliamentary election this year. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is widely expected to dissolve the current parliamentary assembly by early March and set up dates for an election at the end of April or early May. Before then, the president could use his position of power to increase his party’s hold on parliament. He has stated that his proposed electoral reforms will preserve the proportional representation system while ensuring the direct representation of the people. In doing so, he claims it will create a more stable and stronger government that is free of the influence of extremism.
The major Sri Lankan Muslim party, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), has warned that the reforms could remove minority parties from parliament. ACMC leader Rishad Bathiudeen told parliament that sidelining parties would only lead to Sri Lankan society becoming more and more fractured. It is feasible if minority groups such as Muslims and Tamils lack proper political representation like the ACMC, they are more likely to fall into militant extremism, and the long path of reconciliation from the civil war will fall apart. Compounded with the continuing effect of brutal Buddhist nationalism, further terrorist attacks could occur.
Buddhist nationalism continues to be a volatile force in Sri Lanka, and with the ascension of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, its influence over the nation’s political discourse will become more intense. The Easter Bombings inflamed the hardline Buddhism and the anti-Islam rhetoric it espouses, even though the main victims of the attack were Christians. Although not explicitly supported by the government and president, this strain of Buddhism could lead to more mob attacks on Islamic communities. In the long term, this would damage the country’s international image. The tourism sector, which constituted 5% of its economy in 2018, may face a further decline in international visitors.
Should communal violence increase, there may also be a drop in levels of foreign investment, such as China’s substantial Belt and Road investment into the country. While this is a remote possibility, Sri Lanka’s image of relative stability following the civil war may be significantly damaged if Rajapaksa does not act to quell radical Buddhist nationalism. Rajapaksa could find himself unable to achieve his goal creating a strong and safe Sri Lanka.