On October 26, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This sudden challenge to Sri Lanka’s regime blindsided some political observers and members of the international community. To those for whom the political upheaval matters the most, however, it came as no surprise.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was feared by political opponents, his critics and the Tamil-speaking people on the island during his ten-year reign between 2005-2015. Under his rule, activists, journalists and politicians with opposing views were harassed, intimidated, abducted and even murdered. Now that he is back, activists fear they will once again become open targets for their country’s government.
Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya, is also expected to return to the political frontline as result of Friday’s shakeup. Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as Defence Secretary during his brother’s tenure as president and oversaw the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils in 2009, at the final phases of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the armed movement fighting for Tamil self-determination. Tamil activists are fearful that if he returns to a position of authority, he can once again encourage violent repression of dissident voices.
The Rajapaksa brothers have been plotting for a political comeback since their downfall in 2015. Tamil activists, who say they always knew Rajapaksas would one day return, are now revisiting their safety protocols, switching to secure messaging apps and sharing emergency contact details.
They speak in hushed voices as if someone is listening. They sound uneasy but also resigned to another period of repression, painfully aware of the inevitability of a crackdown that has been so regular since the establishment of the Sri Lankan state 70 years ago.
“Mahinda’s [Rajapaksa] return was expected. Despite that, nothing prepared me for the shock and paralysing fear that came when it happened,” one woman, who had been participating in protests to locate thousands of Tamils that had disapeared during the decades long Sri Lankan civil war, told me. “We are in fear of our lives,” she added.
However, not all Sri Lankans are fearful about the return of the Rajapaksa brothers. Most Sinhala people – who are the majority in Sri Lanka – are not equally bothered by the President’s decision to sack the prime minister. Some are even celebrating the change of government the way they celebrated the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. That year Tamils across the country had barricaded themselves inside their homes fearing for their lives, mourning their losses in private, as the rest of the country celebrated a victory that cost tens of thousands of civilian lives.
“In 2009 they lit firecrackers while we hid inside. Today, again they are celebrating while we once again familiarise ourselves with a fear close enough in the past to remember, but, until now, possibly far enough for us to shut away,” the partner of a person disappeared in the civil war told me, as the news broke.
Three years of partial calm
The ousting of Rajapaksa, and the three years of relative stability that followed, allowed for the Tamil people to become more visible in civil spaces in Sri Lanka. The protests by family members of the tens of thousands of Tamils that had disappeared throughout the country’s devastating civil war have become a particularly remarkable show of defiance and resistance by the Tamil people. These women-led protests gripped the attention of the Tamil population around the world, sparking solidarity protests and gaining international media coverage.
Other once-forbidden events, such as commemorations of state-sponsored massacres, have also resurfaced in the last three years, yielding vastly increased numbers of attendance. Last year, over ten thousand Tamils braved the watchful eyes of the ever-present military to attend “Maaveerar Naal” – the Tamil national remembrance day, when the fallen LTTE cadres are remembered.
However, Tamils in Sri Lanka still faced some discrimination and repression during this period.The coalition government’s initial pledges for reform and to provide accountability for the crimes committed by the state during the civil war slowly gave way to rhetoric reminiscent of the Rajapaksa-regime they had displaced, causing Tamils to become increasingly disillusioned. Surveillance, harassment and intimidation of Tamil activists and journalists in Sri Lanka also increased substantially over time. Only last week, the harassment of a prominent Tamil journalist by state forces was highlighted by Reporters Without Borders.
Scared of being targeted for past activism
Now that the Rajapaksa brothers are back in power, the threat facing Tamil activists and journalists is more imminent than it has ever been since 2015. Journalists have already begun to self-censor. Some are deleting content from their social media accounts, while others are deleting public accounts altogether. At least one journalist has left the country.
Last year a journalist told me how a prior period of relative peace in 2001 led to many activists being more open in their political resistance, and caused them to eventually become targets of state retribution. “Once the ceasefire broke down, they targeted us,” he said. “Many colleagues and friends were killed.” After taking advantage of the relative liberalisation experienced so far under Sirisena’s presidency and participating in overt political resistance , Tamil activists are now scared history may repeat itself. They fear that their increased visibility in the last three years may cause them to be targeted by the new government or its affiliated groups.
Today as the supporters of Wickremesinghe and Colombo’s liberal elite continue to argue about the legality of Sirisena’s actions, and as Rajapaksa loyalists work tirelessly to strengthen their new found grip on power, those most affected by the lengthy conflict, and most vocal in their political dissent, are considering what to do next. But whatever they decide to do, they can’t protect themselves from possible state hostility and repression, without some help from the international community.
Throughout Rajapaksa’s tenure as president Western powers occasionally asked the Sri Lankan government to demonstrate a clear commitment to human rights and accountability, but they never attached any decisive timelines or punitive actions to these demands. When Rajapaksa was ousted from power and replaced by Sirisena in 2015, most global actors chose to believe the new government’s pledges for reform and allowed it to lead any reconciliation and accountability efforts.
Within the same year, a US-backed UN resolution that called for a “hybrid” court involving international judges to investigate the alleged crimes against humanity committed during the war was adopted with Sri Lanka’s support. However within months, Sri Lanka began backtracking from its commitments in the resolution – pledging that no foreigners would be allowed to take part in any such mechanism. In turn, the US and other western countries, toned down their demands for a “hybrid court” and supported Sri Lanka’s desire to deal with the crimes domestically – a fatal mistake, one that betrayed thousands of Tamils’ longing for justice.In the following years, despite concerns raised by Tamils, international actors encouraged Tamil activists and journalists, as well as other dissidents, to participate in state initiatives for reconciliation and to exercise their civil liberties, even though there was no reliable, structure offering them long-term protection from possible state retribution. This, as we can clearly see now, put even more people at risk.
The justice sought by Tamils is for horrendous violations of international humanitarian law, that preclude any possibility of domestic accountability. The perpetrators of these crimes remain free. And even more worryingly, the politicians that oversaw these crimes are now back in power.
However, it is still not too late for the international community to rectify past mistakes. Sri Lankan authorities have been given an easy ride after committing horrendous crimes so far and the relative stability of the last three years allowed the world to turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices. Now the world can, and should, take action to protect the most vulnerable members of the Sri Lankan society. A message needs to be sent to whoever is in charge of the Sri Lankan government: The state can not get away with the crimes it already committed, and it will not be allowed to commit new ones.
Any Sri Lankan government should be made to understand that repurcussions will be severe if it refuses to commit to significant reforms and a genuine process of accountability for war crimes. If the international community fails to guarantee this, Tamils of Sri Lanka will inevitably face yet another era of repression, persecution and pain.