On 17 November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa assumes office following after his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has served in many positions in the Sri Lankan government, one of which was president for ten years. Rajapaksa and his brother are perhaps most well known in Sri Lanka as those credited for ending the 26-year civil war in 2009. These brothers have an intense military presence: Rajapaksa was even nicknamed “the terminator” by his family, according to Al Jazeera. Rajapaksa has a complex military past that has created contentious issues surrounding his new administration. He has allegations against him for war crimes including killing, torture, and forced disappearances nearing the end of the civil war. Additionally, he has allegations against him in the U.S., which include unauthorized orders of killings and torture of Tamils when he served on the defence security. Rajapaksa has done little to address these tries against him. Al Jazeera reports that, when asked about the allegations he simply deflected, “you’re talking about the past all the time, let’s talk about the future.” His lack of ownership of his wrongdoings should call for concern in his administration.
Rajapaksa will be the first retired military officer to take office in Sri Lanka. Because of this militant mindset, Rajapaksa has focused much of his campaign on security defence in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans who are behind his administration actually appreciate the militant attitude he brings to his governance. They remark that they are looking forward to having the same efficiency with which he ended the war. Further, Al Jazeera reports citizens feeling encouraged, saying they are hoping “he approaches the economy and other issues with the same single-minded drive.” The call for security has also been prompted by the Easter Sunday attacks that hit churches and hotels last April. These attacks killed more than 250 people and shattered any semblance of religious tolerance, even harmony, that this country had prior. In addition to security, his campaign also focuses strongly on beginning an economic revival. Still recovering from their 26-year war, the economic state of Sri Lanka has been in peril. This was only exacerbated by the Easter Sunday attacks, which triggered a large detriment in Sri Lanka’s tourist industry, one of its main sources of revenue. Ultimately, Rajapaksa inherited a tremendous amount of debt from his brother’s administration. Nonetheless, he ensures Sri Lankans that, with his administration, a revival is possible.
Both Rajapaksa and his brother represent the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party. Therefore, most of their following is from the major ethnic group, the Sinhalese, and the Buddhist clergy. Both of these groups have been notorious for discrimination and racism against Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially since the Easter Sunday attacks. Because of this overwhelming representation of the Sinhalese Buddhist National Party, and a serious lack of representation for minorities, the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka anticipates Rajapaksa’s regime with fear.
These elections hit during the most politically unstable time in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war 10 years ago. The votes were almost entirely split along ethnic lines and threats were made to minorities demanding their vote for Rajapaksa. According to The Guardian, the Vice President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council received a call that endangered the entire Muslims community if they did not give their vote to Rajapaksa with threats saying, “we will set fire to your house, rape your wife and then kill your family.” Another example of this racist violence is the bus attack during the election season. There was open gunfire on a bus that was carrying Muslims to the voting polls, but thankfully there were no fatalities. Both of these attacks make it clear that the extremists are attempting everything in their power to take the vote away from minorities so that their racist acts can continue in Rajapaksa’s regime. A less violent, yet just as oppressive attack, is the religiously intolerant law that women cannot wear headscarves in public. This example illuminates the total loss of respect for religious freedom since the Easter Sunday attacks.
The Easter Sunday attacks were claimed by a self-radicalized ISIS group. Even though this is common knowledge, there are still some who treat the Muslim population in Sri Lanka as if this was in some way their fault. There have been an atrocious amount of hate crimes against them. Many Muslims have had their property destroyed, including their shops and homes. In terms of religious harmony, tensions have risen so high that neighbours can no longer live amongst each other in peace. The Guardian includes a personal testimony that reveals this dissonance. Gloriya George, who is 19, lost her father in the bombings while they were both at a church on Easter Sunday. She mentions that since her loss, she and her friends have stopped going to Muslim restaurants. Further, if her Uber driver is Muslim, they will not take the ride. This is not how her and her family interacted with her Muslim neighbours before. She mentioned how her father had a very close relationship with many of them.
The Guardian includes another testimony from Rinzan Mohideen. He describes how his shops, along with 20 other Muslims owned stores, were burned to the ground during some anti-Muslim protests in May. He says, “if Gotabaya wins then I will pack up and leave because things will only get worse and worse for us, there will be no hope for the Muslim community. I cannot let my daughter grow up in that environment.” This testimony conveys the fear that Muslims in Sri Lanka experience on a daily basis, especially in anticipation of Rajapaksa’s regime.
The current state of political instability, economic trouble, and religious intolerance in Sri Lanka is certainly cause for concern. Electing a president that not only has no intention of advocating for marginalized groups, but actually encourages the racist attacks only raises concern. In Rajapaksa’s oppressive administration, the question becomes how do we raise advocacy for Muslims in Sri Lanka so that their rights are upheld. One tactic that could be helpful in this is holding platforms for discussion among the Muslim communities and those whose loved ones were lost in the Easter Sunday bombings. This could help bring understanding, build community and lessen grievances these communities have against each other. While serious changes need to be made within the administration to ensure human rights will be upheld, this could also be a helpful solution on a community-based level. Building trust and understanding within a community has power to increase advocacy in the state at large. Restoring the relationship between these groups of people could drastically reorient the trajectory of Sri Lanka, even in the face of Rajapaksa’s administration.