Illustration: Aravinthan Ganeshan
Even before they returned to power in Sri Lanka last year, the Rajapaksas never sought to cloak their brash espousal of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. As defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran a ruthless offensive that massacred tens of thousands of Tamils, which his brother Mahinda oversaw as president, with what he called “a sense of quiet joy”. Now, more than six months have passed with the Rajapaksa siblings back in power and occupying the island’s highest offices. And whilst global attention has been focussed on controlling the coronavirus pandemic, the regime has used the crisis to unleash Sinhala supremacy with an even greater ferocity.
This is not unexpected. Indeed, Gotabaya laid out his vision for the island in his presidential election campaign last year. “The Sinhalese, being the majority of this country voted for me en masse,” he declared at his overtly Buddhist inauguration ceremony. And it is for them that he is ruling. War criminals who murdered Tamil children have been pardoned, whilst those who directed the massacres at Mullivakkal alongside him have been promoted. The rampant militarisation of the Tamil homeland has stepped up, with an increasing number of checkpoints and lashes of state violence. The ministry of defence continues to swallow up government institutions. And, perhaps most illustratively, the military has officially been instructed to protect Buddhist sites in the East – a region already subject to intense Sinhalisation - under the guise of ‘archaeology’. Through almost every avenue, the Sinhala nationalist project is in full swing.
Rajapaksa is all too aware of how popular his actions are, reflected in his eagerness to hold elections despite the pandemic and willingness to push the island to the brink of a constitutional crisis. Indeed, the United National Party has also attempted to re-burnish its own Sinhala Buddhist credentials, with its declared purge of those “standing up only for minorities”. This is not a new wave of populism though. The same chauvinism that drove anti-Tamil pogroms sixty-two years ago and the torching of the Jaffna Library thirty-nine years ago continues to hold significant sway amongst the southern polity today. The toxic Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy at the core of Sri Lanka has remained intact. And this regime has given it a new lease of life.
This ultra-militarised strengthening of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony cannot be normalised. Western engagement in particular – from the United States, United Kingdom and European Union – is in dire need of a complete overhaul. Indeed, these states seem increasingly duplicitous in Sri Lanka’s ongoing repression. The EU, for instance, decries the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, whilst simultaneously supporting Sri Lanka’s deeply flawed and racist criminal justice system “to counter terrorism”. The US and UK release intermittent calls for accountability, yet have continued military engagement with an army that is headed by a war criminal whom Washington itself has barred from entry over rights abuses. This approach for over a decade has failed to coax Sri Lanka to reform and instead undermined Tamil hopes placed in the international community. Now is a time for concrete punitive actions, not more hollow statements.
One channel that will hold increasing leverage in the coming months is Colombo’s desperate need for international financial support. An already mismanaged economy, which maintains significant military spending, is suffering heavily from the global coronavirus shutdown. International and bilateral financial assistance will be even more sought after and should be used as an opportunity to place tangible pressure on the state. There cannot be any blank cheques, and any funding granted must not be used to further oppression. Instead, it must be tied to measures on demilitarisation and repealing repressive laws, and as part of a comprehensive foreign policy that pursues international criminal justice.
The Rajapaksas, who come after a long line of chauvinists before them, are clear on the path they intend to follow. There will be no demilitarisation or devolution of power. There will be no justice for crimes committed. And there will be no regard for pluralist or democratic principles. A deeply racist system of institutionalised violence and genocide is going from strength to strength. And as movements around the world begin to highlight and challenge such systems of oppression, this cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.