For the first time in decades there will be no mass gatherings across the world today, as Eelam Tamils commemorate Maaveerar Naal. In the Tamil homeland, the return of the Rajapaksas has plunged the North-East back into a familiar repression. Many will be marking the day in secret, fearing the threat of Sri Lankan military reprisals. Pandemic restrictions around the world have also meant that the well-established large scale events held by the diaspora have been moved to virtual spaces. This relative absence of public display, however, does not detract from the solemnity of this day. Instead, the will to overcome these obstacles and commemorate the sacrifices demonstrates the tenacity of the Tamil nation.
The prospect of a Biden-Harris administration at the White House has brought both hope and trepidation around the world. In Sri Lanka, some in Colombo’s polity are nervous. Amongst the Tamils, there is both wariness and tempered optimism about what the new administration may bring. A hope that come January, there will be opportunities to help address past failures.
As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Colombo last week, Sri Lanka’s leaders will have breathed a sigh of relief. The much-anticipated tough talk on human rights and accountability did not materialise. Instead, the US diplomat spoke on the two government’s “friendship” and how to drive American investment to the island, with only a cursory mention of justice for mass atrocities. That this was done whilst posing for photographs with Sri Lanka’s war crimes accused president sends worrying signals - for the future of the island and for the direction of US foreign policy.
As US Secretary of State Mike Pomepo lands in Colombo today, close attention will be paid to his meetings at Temple Trees, where he will meet with Sri Lanka’s war crimes-accused president and prime minister. The Sri Lankan government will no doubt spin this as an US attempt to court the regime in Colombo or even as international applause for how the Rajapaksa siblings have ruled since they returned to power. The Secretary of State must make clear that this is far from the case.
Sri Lanka’s president has wasted little time in getting to work. Within weeks of his party sweeping parliamentary polls, Gotabaya Rajapaksa rapidly produced the long-promised 20 th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which seeks to further concentrate power into the executive presidency he occupies. As expected, there are few checks on his power and with a super-majority in parliament, a determined Rajapaksa looks set to steamroll it through.
As the island heads to the polls today, a victory for the Rajapaksas seems almost inevitable. Their brand of militarised Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which has always held support amongst the southern polity, has taken their popularity to new heights with a simple majority all but assured. Indeed, a two-thirds majority, which would grant the regime the power to make constitutional amendments, is now within reach. Regardless of whether that is achieved today or not, the polls will nevertheless see the Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala supremacy on the island strengthened.
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.
Today marks yet another year when Tamils across the island, and around the world, light candles, lay flowers and bow their heads to commemorate the massacres at Mullivaikkal. Eleven long years have now passed since the atrocities that marked the zenith of Sri Lanka’s genocide. Yet with no justice, no accountability and no political solution, the wounds of 2009 remain fresh.
Sri Lanka has taken on a dangerous coronavirus containment strategy. Faced with a public health crisis, the state has driven through authoritarian measures and deployed a military accused of systemic rights abuses. The response so far has been deeply troubling. Thousands have been forcibly sent to military-run quarantine centres, whilst an arbitrary curfew has seen thousands more arrested and livelihoods threatened – particularly in the war-torn North-East. The free hand given to the armed forces has already seen gross abuses of power. This is not how a pandemic should be handled.
The Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels last year were an unprecedented act of violence. Hundreds were killed on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, in a horrific series of blasts. On an island that has been mired by ethnic strife for so many decades, the attacks mapped on to existing fissures and were a devastating reminder of how deep-rooted they remain. The year since the blasts has seen the island move no closer towards reconciliation. Instead, Sri Lanka has predictably fallen into old patterns, reverting further towards authoritarianism and securitisation. A war criminal now sits as head of state. And the island remains fertile ground for more violence.