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.
As states around the world tried to contain a global pandemic last week, the Sri Lankan government made time once more to highlight its disdain for human rights. Sri Lanka's president pardoned Sunil Ratnayake, the only soldier convicted for the brutal Mirusivil massacre, where eight Tamil civilians had their throats slashed and bodies dumped in a mass grave. He is one of only a handful of soldiers that have ever been convicted throughout Sri Lanka’s torturous history of mass atrocities. And now, despite overwhelming opposition by Tamils, human rights activists, the UN and diplomats, an...
Several weeks into Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, journalists on the island are coming under increasing threat. Whilst the island has always been a dangerous place for the press, and for Tamil journalists in particular, over the last month there has been a worrying rise in intimidation, harassment and even physical assaults of media workers, alongside political activists and human rights defenders.
In the wake of Sri Lanka’s presidential elections this weekend, fear has gripped the North-East. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man who engineered the massacres of tens of thousands of Tamils a decade ago, is back in power. This time, he occupies the highest office in the land. The result, though unsurprising, is terrifying.