A renewed power play by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ran the country for a decade, has reignited fears of majoritarianism and trouble for the minorities.
By Kitana Ananda and V.V. Ganeshananthan
Over the past few weeks, Sri Lanka has faced a moral and political crisis that threatens to undermine hope for democracy. On Oct. 26, Maithripala Sirisena, the president of Sri Lanka, appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, the polarizing former president who ran Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2014, to replace the incumbent prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe.
The prospect of Mr. Rajapaksa’s return to power has revived fears of authoritarian rule and repression of the country’s long-embattled minorities. Mr. Rajapaksa, who belongs to the Sinhala Buddhist majority, rode to victory in 2005 by stoking Sinhala nationalism and by vowing to end the long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the militants fighting for a separate state. The quarter-century-long conflict saw grave abuses by the state and the rebels. In 2009, when Sri Lanka’s armed forces decimated the L.T.T.E., the brutal victory was accompanied by tens of thousands of Tamil civilian deaths.
The war’s end brought Mr. Rajapaksa power and popularity, which he used to silence critics. Journalists and dissidents were attacked with impunity. Dozens of his relatives ascended to government posts; he ended presidential term limits and militarized governance.
In war-affected regions, minority Tamils faced continued surveillance, intimidation and military land grabs. Even small gatherings had to be reported to the military, and people were denied counseling and psychosocial care. A social crisis ensued: Women-headed households below the poverty line soared; sexual violence increased; and families searched fruitlessly for their disappeared relatives.
After the Tamils ceased to be a convincing threat to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the Rajapaksas found a new target in Muslims, who make up 9 percent of the population. Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists began attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops.
The military and its budget ballooned, along with the Rajapaksa coffers, and support for Mr. Rajapaksa waned as the cost of living skyrocketed for ordinary Sri Lankans. In 2014, Mr. Sirisena, a close ally of Mr. Rajapaksa’s and the health minister in his government, surprised observers by defecting to run for the presidency. Mr. Sirisena did not come from the country’s traditional political elite; his platform of economic security, anend to corruption, return to the rule of law and inclusive democracy resonated across communities.
After defeating Mr. Rajapaksa in January 2015, Mr. Sirisena returned to the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party and formed a “national unity” government with its longtime rival, the center-right, pro-business United National Party. He chose Ranil Wickremasinghe, the U.N.P. leader, as prime minister.
The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe coalition made limited progress on reforms. The government depoliticized the military, initiated investigations into Rajapaksa-era crimes, permitted human rights inquiries and established modest transitional justice mechanisms, including an Office of Missing Persons to investigate the enforced disappearances during the war. The coalition also smoothed over relations with India and the West after Mr. Rajapaksa’s hard tilt toward China.
After a decade of repression, the election of a new government opened up room for assembly and speech. The alliance-building has made it possible to address structural issues such as persistent indebtedness, women’s insecurity and displacement. Civil society and trade union activists, journalists and minorities have organized to expand this democratic space.
Mothers have been protesting in search of disappeared loved ones,including in places like the Mullaitivu district in northern Sri Lanka, the site of tremendous devastation during the last phase of the war.
In the Keppapilavu area of Mullaitivu district, Tamil women have gone on a yearlong demonstration for the return of land seized by the military.While they deserve better responses, these and similar protests would not have been possible during Mr. Rajapaksa’s time.
Yet most Sri Lankans have seen few benefits from postwar development, and Mr. Sirisena’s clock began to run out. Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremasinghe have often been at loggerheads over the country’s administration — a conflict amplified by their distinct personalities. Sri Lanka’s debts grew under Mr. Rajapaksa and continued to do so under Mr. Wickremasinghe, who wished to increase investment from India and the West.
Mr. Sirisena blamed his counterpart for mismanaging the country’s finances and trade, and worried that national assets were being sold to make up the difference. When a new nationalist party formed by Mr. Rajapaksa’s brother and other allies defeated Mr. Sirisena’s and Mr. Wickremasinghe’s parties in local elections this year, many people took it as a sign that Mr. Rajapaksa — or another Mr. Rajapaksa among the slew of available relatives — would regain the presidency in 2020.
And then, Mr. Sirisena appointed Mr. Rajapaksa and replaced Mr. Wickremasinghe as prime minister. The unexpected renewal of their alliance was made possible through repeated violations of the Sri Lankan Constitution and its notorious executive presidency.
Mr. Wickremasinghe and his U.N.P. challenged Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment, as did Tamil minority and Sinhala leftist parties. Mr. Wickremasinghe continued to occupy the prime minister’s official residence. Ordinary, nonpartisan Sri Lankans joined party-led protests against Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment and rallied for democracy.
Two weeks later, when Mr. Rajapaksa could not secure the support of a parliamentary majority, Mr. Sirisena dissolved the Parliament and called for snap elections. Many saw hypocrisy: Mr. Sirisena had campaigned to abolish Sri Lanka’s too-powerful executive presidency; now he was violating his own rules. The country’s Supreme Court thwarted his attempts by staying the dissolution of the Parliament and the snap election.
The speaker of a reconvened Parliament has twice, amid tremendous disruption, held no-confidence votes, which Mr. Rajapaksa lost and refused to accept. On Sunday, President Sirisena met with Mr. Rajapaksa, Mr. Wickremesinghe and representatives from other political parties. But Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa are refusing to accede to the Parliament, and day by day the country is degenerating into political anarchy.
In realigning himself with Mr. Rajapaksa to shore up his precarious political power, Mr. Sirisena has risked undoing everything his government achieved. The specter of Mr. Rajapaksa dredges up old fears for the country’s most marginalized citizens.
Any movement opposing Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa must advance a political and economic vision for all Sri Lankans, including the country’s minorities. Such a vision is most likely to be credible if it includes an honest reckoning with the coalition government’s failures over the past four years.
Sri Lanka’s current impasse is more than a constitutional crisis — it is a moral and political one. The state needs much greater reform. Unlawfully returning an authoritarian leader to power will impede grass-roots change, which the country needs more than it needs any politician. Ultimately, it must be up to Sri Lanka’s people to set their nation on the path of democracy once again.