The end of Sri Lanka as we know it?

In a move that was not a surprise, earlier this week President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced snap general elections in Sri Lanka. The island will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament on April 25. Till then the current prime minister and the president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will continue in saddle with 16 Cabinet ministers although they will not be able to take substantive policy decisions. The election is likely to sharpen ethnic and religious tensions, despite the superficial impression of political stability.


The last general elections were held on August 17, 2015. The verdict was pretty clear: the United National Party (UNP) won 106 seats in the 225 legislature while the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 95 seats. Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, while the Mahinda Gotabaya clan was relegated to opposition benches. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), an alliance of Tamil parties, won 16 seats, the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP) won six seats while the Eelam People’s Democratic Party and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress won one seat each.


Behind the figures were complicated stories of new political alignments: Parties which had been adversaries previously, came together to unite with the sole purpose of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, head of the Rajapaksa clan and leader of a Sinhala Buddhist revival. It was during Rajapaksa’s presidency that the dreaded guerilla outfit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been wiped out via a military operation overseen by his brother Gotabhaya. Naturally, neither brother — nor any other member of the clan — was likely to be welcomed in the northern and eastern pro­vinces of the country, dominated by the Tamils and Muslims. The north and east voted in large numbers for the Tamil coalition in 2015 and that interpreted this mandate to mean it was anti-Rajapaksa. So it sided with Wickremesinghe and the UNP.


It then became politically incumbent upon the Wickremesinghe administration to set right some of the historical wrongs done to the Tamil people, especially during the war years. The problem seemed to be that Wickremesinghe’s heart was not in the integration project. The result was: the Tamils (and Muslims to some extent) saw talk of mechanisms for transitional justice and human rights as chicanery. And even the limited minority outreach sent up red flags among the majority Sinhala Buddhist, especially in Sri Lanka’s deep south.


A controversial ideologue of the French Revolution, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, said, as he was being led to the guillotine: When you make a revolution halfway, you dig your grave. Islamic militancy replaced Tamil militancy as the riposte to threats of Sinhala Buddhist domination. All of this erupted in the Easter Sunday bombings by Islamic radicals in 2019. The attacks took place in both Colombo and Batticaloa in the east. Disappointed by Wickremesinghe, fearful of the rise of Sinhala Buddhists triumphalism and anxious about their future, the Muslims now became the new militants.


Sri Lanka’s economy, already flailing tiredly, just sank. The country faces a daunting foreign debt repayment schedule for its excessive foreign borrowings — $17 billion in maturing foreign loans and debt servicing between now and 2023. In 2018, Sri Lanka’s tourism earnings amounted to around $4.4 bn. In 2019 this was around $4 bn, as the industry staggered to recover from travel advisories from most European capitals, warning citizens not to visit Sri Lanka. Worse was to follow as President Maithripala Sirisena and the prime minister who had come together in a marriage made in hell, finally fell out and the president sacked the prime minister, creating a governance crisis of acute proportions. In Sri Lanka, in the last quarter of 2019, literally nobody was managing the store.


Then came the presidential elections earlier this year and unsurprisingly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected to the top job against Sajith Premadasa of the UNP, who has now split away and formed his own party. Earlier this week, Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from cosponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015, which set out in detail a process for reconciliation and justice in the country to demonstrate its good faith to the international community, is the first sign of the divisive polemic that will dominate the upcoming elections. All the indications are that the Tamils will vote for the Tamils; the Sinhalese will vote for the Rajapaksas and those they back; and the Muslims will vote for the Muslims. The coming election will mark the end of Sri Lanka’s poly-ethnic project. How it will survive as a nation remains to be seen.

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