On July 9, thousands of protestors stormed the residence of Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in what appeared to be the climax of months of protest over the economic crisis on the island. Photos and videos that quickly made headlines around the world showed demonstrators rummaging through his wardrobe, working out in his personal gym, and splashing around in his private pool. Less than three years after Rajapaksa won a commanding majority among the island’s Sinhalese, the unimaginable had happened - the Sinhala Buddhist strongman, whose war crimes aided rather than impeded his rise to power, was being forced out of office.
For many across the island, this was a revolutionary moment. Indeed, with news that both Sri Lanka’s president and recently appointed prime minister may finally be stepping down, hopes of a new dawn for an island that is in financial freefall have been raised.
Tamils across the North-East, however, who have suffered decades of broken promises, remain wary and they have good reason to be sceptical. In the listed demands of sixty organisations behind the ‘Go Home Gota’ protests, there is no mention of demilitarisation, accountability, or devolution – key concerns for Eelam Tamils. There has also been no official word from the president himself on whether he will actually step down beyond assurances from the Speaker of Parliament. Indeed, Rajapaksa’s whereabouts remain unknown. Even if Rajapaksa steps down, Sri Lanka’s crisis will still not end. The island remains short of fuel, medicines and dollars, with record levels of inflation that have left a third of households struggling to feed their children. The latest proposals for an all-party interim government have given little indication that it will be able to manage the crisis any better.
Without changing the system that allowed figures like the Rajapaksas to rise to the all-powerful positions that they were in, the same cycles of illiberal, ethnocratic and unaccountable rule, risk repeating themselves. This risk has already manifested throughout the course of the ‘aragalaya’. Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who engineered the Mullivaikkal genocide alongside the Rajapaksas, has been actively given a platform by Sri Lanka’s anti-government movement as he looks to assert himself as next in line for the presidency. Notorious racists and credibly accused war criminals have joined their demonstrations. Even the military, including Shavendra Silva who is barred from entry to the US over his role in executing Tamils, have been fashioning themselves as defenders of the country’s constitution and may yet play a larger role in the months to come.
The coming days and weeks are therefore crucial. Replacing one figurehead at the top of a rotten ethnocratic state structure with another would simply allow the whole island to fall into another cycle of ethnocratic and military rule that Rajapaksa was the distillation of. This must not be allowed to happen.
Members of the international community who should have played a more active and principled role in preventing such a crisis must now act. Ever since the election of Rajapaksa, few attempted to hold him to account. The enduring protests of Tamils across the North-East were ignored, and a blind eye was turned to military abuses. Even after protests erupted across the south, as recently as this week, Western diplomats embarrassingly continued to shake hands and post photographs alongside Gotabaya Rajapaksa - a corrupt war criminal that massacred tens of thousands and led the island to ruin.
Now is the moment for protestors, political party leaders, and the international community to create real transformation by pushing for transparency, justice, and accountability at all levels. An important first step could be as simple as any new Sri Lankan government ratifying the Rome Statute. Those responsible for grave crimes both in respect of corruption but also importantly for mass atrocities must be held accountable. Until they are, Tamils will continue to remain sceptical.
As the mist clears, it remains to be seen if Sri Lanka is finally on the brink of transformative change or whether will remain the same ethnocratic military state in different garb.