The Rajapaksas’ return to power means an uncertain future for Sri Lankan minorities

On 18 November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary and brother of two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s eighth president. Representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) the Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalist Party, Gotabaya received just over 52% of the vote.

Despite his apparent popularity, he is nevertheless a divisive figure in Sri Lankan politics. During his time as defence secretary from 2005 to 2015 he was accused of committing grave human rights violations and war crimes, including the establishment of military death squads, whilst simultaneously being praised by others for his part in overseeing the end of the long running civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.

Support for Gotabaya came almost exclusively from Sinhalese-Buddhist areas in the south of Sri Lanka. He struggled to win votes in the north and east of the country where the majority of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Muslims are based.

“It is all of our worst fears realised … Sri Lanka is totally polarised by this result”

Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council.

A conflation of religious and national identities

Symbolic of Sinhalese Buddhist power and the nationalist interests he represents, Gotabaya held his oath-taking ceremony at the Ruwanweliseya Temple, which is said to have been built by the warrior king Dutugemunu who defeated a Tamil prince, thereby uniting the island. He is the first Sri Lankan President to hold this ceremony at a place of worship.

In 2012, Gnanasara Thero, the leader of the extreme Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been responsible for some of the most violent attacks on Muslims and Christians since their inception, compared the military victory in the civil war to the conquest of the Tamils by an ancient Sinhalese king. He claimed that “Tamils have been taught a lesson twice,” and implied that other minorities would face the same fate if they tried to “challenge Sri Lankan culture.”

The “king” Gnanasara is referring to is Dutugemunu, the same one honoured by Gotabaya via his choice of venue for his presidential oath ceremony. Intentionally or not, the new president is reaffirming the messages of nationalist groups. This conflation of religious identity and the state sends a clear message to minorities about Gotabaya’s vision for the country and the place of minorities in it.

During the ceremony Gotabaya admitted that he knew he did not need the support of minorities to win:

“Although I knew that I could win the presidential election with only the support of the Sinhala people, I made a special request form[sic] Tamils and Muslims to be shareholders of my victory. However, the response was not up to my expectations.”

Under outgoing President Sirisena, groups such as the BBS were politically emboldened by his soft stance on their nationalist rhetoric. This culminated when Gnanasara was granted a presidential pardon and released from prison just days after anti-Muslim violence swept Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Yet it was under Gotabaya’s brother, former president and current interim Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, that the groups were allowed to rise and occupy prominent places in social and political discourse.

A president with historical links to Buddhist nationalism

As defence secretary under Mahinda, Gotabaya attended some BBS rallies, whilst the BBS used state owned cellular networks to raise funds.

A president with close historical links to Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups and who does not need minority votes is worrying at the best of times; add the national security fears and hostile religious climate following the Easter Sunday Bombings to the mix and the combination is even more combustible.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday Bombings in which over 250 people died when hotels and Christian services were attacked by Islamic extremists, there were numerous reprisals against the Muslim community carried out by both Christians and Buddhists. Many Muslims were fearful of leaving their homes in case of attack. A series of security measures were introduced, including a temporary ban on facial coverings. Although the hijab or burka were not mentioned specifically, they were the de facto target of this ban and reinforced the link between Islam and terrorism. 

In July Gnanasara called for Buddhist monks to vote for candidates who best represent the interests of the Sinhalese majority.

“We the clergies should aim to create a Sinhala government. We will create a parliament that will be accountable for the country, a parliament that will protect Sinhalese”

Now, with a Sinhalese President likely to be in his camp and with parliamentary elections expected early in 2020, Gnanasara may soon get his wish. In the coming months the dynamic between nationalist groups and the government must be monitored closely.

In the SLPP election manifesto, Gotabaya pledged to protect the rights of every religion, whilst maintaining the foremost place of Buddhism and protecting the Buddha Sansa, as per Article 9 of the constitution. In the same document he stated that “Our government will dismantle all structures supporting and nurturing terrorism and extremism. Strict laws will be enacted to curtail such activity.”

Without clearly defining what is meant by ‘structures’, ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ these terms are open to misuse. For example, many Sri Lankans view conservative Wahhabism and the wearing of the veil as extremist behaviour. Furthermore, attempts to proselytise by both Christians and Muslims could be framed as challenging the ‘foremost’ place of Buddhism in society, and thereby Sri Lankan culture – would this then fall under extremism also? It would certainly meet the criteria of Gnanasara’s 2012 warning.

If Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups who want to assert Sri Lanka as an exclusively Buddhist country are able to use their historical links to influence a president who only needs to appease a Buddhist political base, there could be very dire times ahead for minorities in Sri Lanka.

By CSW’s Advocacy and Projects Officer