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‘Gota needs to go – but so does the ethnocratic state’

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Responding to the crisis which has engulfed Sri Lanka, Mario Arulthas, an advisor to People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), stresses that for a “more just stable and prosperous island”, it is not the President that needs to go but the deeply entrenched ethnocratic state.

His opinion piece in Al Jazeera comes as there are widespread protests across Sri Lanka denouncing the President for the current economic crisis which has left the country with a severe shortage in food, fuel and medicines. However, Arulthas notes that while these demonstrations are harshly critical of the President’s economic record, they have failed to centre his most egregious crimes against Eelam Tamils.

Whilst Defence Secretary, Rajapaksa oversaw a litany of war crimes as “Sri Lankan troops executed bound Tamil fighters, committed sexual violence against captive female fighters and shelled civilians who were queueing for food”. “These acts left an indelible imprint on the Tamil psyche” Arulthas writes.

“The protest’s key slogan, ‘Gota Go Home’, for Tamils is not sufficient. They don’t want him to go home, they want him to go to The Hague, to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide” he stresses.

He further details that compared to the South, Tamils in the North-East have been relatively quiet.

“They have good reason to hesitate before joining this protest movement. They’ve seen Sinhalese frustration with the Rajapaksas coalesce and then evaporate before, and suffered the consequences of failed promises of reform. And many of them know from painful experience that the risks for them of turning out into the streets are far graver than for their Sinhalese countrymen” he notes.

He also details that whilst this deprivation is new for the Sinhala population, this hardship has been felt by Tamil populations over the last four decades.

“Engineered economic hardship was part of the Sri Lankan state’s wartime strategy. Large parts of the Tamil areas were under a strict embargo during the war, with the government restricting fuel, medicine, sweets and even electronic toys. So while the current economic crisis is difficult for people across the island, for the Tamil people, a certain muscle memory has kicked in. People in the northeast have swiftly switched to kerosene lamps and bicycles, as they did during the war. And for them, straitened economic circumstances are hardly the worst of what they have experienced at the hands of the Rajapaksas” Arulthas writes.

He further reflects that this is not the first time that the Rajapaksas have faced pressure from their main constituency.

“In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency to a so-called ‘good governance’ coalition, made up of former allies and opposition parties. He lost because many of his supporters had grown frustrated with corruption and nepotism, while Tamils continued to refuse to vote for a man they sought to have prosecuted at an international tribunal for overseeing mass atrocities during the war”.

Despite this upset, by 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to win a landslide victory running on a hardline Sinhala nationalist platform. He won “with an overwhelming majority among Sinhala voters, who bought into his chauvinist messaging on the back of the bombings, which sparked anti-Muslim violence in parts of the country,” Arulthas writes.

Upon winning, Rajapaksa's centralised power within the Presidency weakened parliamentary restraints, rejected Tamil and international demands for justice, pardoned war criminals and established structures that allow him to govern without the oversight of parliament.

In concluding his piece he stresses that the failure to engage with Tamil grievances “is indicative of the deep-rooted problem in Sri Lanka, one that goes beyond the Rajapaksas”.

“The country has failed to build an inclusive society due to successive governments’ (and their voters’) insistence on Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy, and the resultant ethnocratic nature of the state and its institutions as protectors of the Sinhalese community, at the expense of Tamils and Muslims”.

He adds that:

“The current protest movement’s focus on the commonality of experience, while understandable, does little to reassure Tamils and Muslims that they are safe from ethnic scapegoating for the country’s economic woes, a tactic the state has historically used as a distraction during times of crisis, resulting in pogroms against these communities”.

However, he also notes that “for the first time since the war, the Sri Lankan state is turning its might against its own partisans and in their outrage, some Sinhala-Buddhists are drawing parallels to the abuses suffered by Tamils and Muslims at the hands of state forces, specifically to the atrocities committed against Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. This presents the possibility of outreach to an audience that has long been resistant to hearing any criticism of the Sri Lankan”.

“Gota indeed must go, but for the protest movement to succeed in its stated goal of a more just, stable, and prosperous island, so must the ethnocratic state”.

Read the full op-ed at Al Jazeera.

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