Sri Lanka: The Return to Ethnocracy

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president of Sri Lanka in November 2019 and the covid-19 pandemic have led to increased militarization, while the August 2020 landslide parliamentary victory of the new president’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and subsequent passage of the Twentieth Amendment have set the stage for authoritarian rule. With the Rajapaksa family dominating politics once more, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists also seek to expand majoritarianism. Sri Lankans, however, take their right to vote seriously, and this combined with the economic challenges related to covid-19 may stem a return toward militarized ethnocracy.

by Neil DeVotta

When ethnoreligious agitprop and ethnic conflict rule the day, democracy suffers. Sri Lanka has long been a cautionary tale in this regard. A majoritarian dispensation led to a bloody 26-year civil war between the government (dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists) and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The conflict made a slide toward illiberalism inevitable.1 After the war ended with a government victory in 2009, there was a move toward authoritarianism but voters reversed that in 2015. Now, five years hence, Sri Lanka’s battered and illiberal democracy once again appears to be on the ropes.

Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa(L) greets and receives blessings after handing over the appointment documents to his brother, former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa who took oaths as the prime minister at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2020

On 16 November 2019, the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency with 52 percent of the vote in this country of 22 million. Then in August 2020, the new president’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People’s Front or SLPP) and its allies won a 150-seat supermajority in the 225-seat Parliament. There, the SLPP is led by the new president’s older brother Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015 and is now prime minister. With the Rajapaksa brothers ascendant, the arrow once more points toward authoritarianism. What stands to follow is the consolidation of a Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocracy and the further vitiation of whatever reserves of pluralism and liberalism are left on the island.

All this has taken place against a backdrop of steady voting in regular elections. Since 1982, Sri Lankans have voted for president eight times. Since 1947, the year before independence, there have been sixteen parliamentary ballotings. The universal franchise pre-dates independence, having been introduced by a British commission in 1931. This gives Sri Lanka the title of Asia’s oldest democracy, with a populace that goes to the polls in large numbers. The 2019 presidential race drew a turnout of almost 84 percent. The parliamentary elections had to be postponed twice (from April to June and then to August) due to the covid-19 pandemic, but still attracted 76 percent participation.

Relatively well-run elections with high turnout, however, do not guarantee good governance or liberal democracy. Indeed, many societies that have embraced majoritarianism have done so via the ballot box. Sri Lanka is one. The two recent elections signify a transformation similar to the one that followed the 1956 parliamentary elections and catapulted the country toward an ethnocentric regime and, eventually, civil war.

The 1956 election was a revolution brought about by democratic means. Sinhalese forces, mainly rural and deeply rooted in Sinhalese culture, used linguistic nationalism to rally the island’s Sinhala-speaking majority behind the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Once in office, that party swiftly made Sinhala the sole official language. Successive governments led by the SLFP and the pro-Western United National Party (UNP) thereafter manipulated ethnonationalist sentiment to marginalize minorities, with the SLFP taking the lead in arrogating economic gains for the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

Under British rule, the mainly Hindu Tamil minority had been heavily represented in the bureaucracy and military. The SLFP changed all that. Tamils had made up two-fifths of the armed forces in 1956; by 1970, they were 1 percent. In bureaucratic ranks, Tamil numbers declined from 30 percent in 1956 to 5 percent in 1970. The Sri Lankan Tamils accounted for only about 11 percent of the population at the time of independence, so the idea of reducing their share of government and military posts was understandable. What happened after 1956, however, was less a rebalancing than a case of ethnocentric state capture followed by an ethnic purge: Sinhala replaced English as the official language, forcing many Tamils out of the bureaucracy, the military, and also the universities, with Sinhalese successors taking their places.

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism combines language, religion, and mythohistory to portray Sri Lanka as a sanctuary for Buddhism. The Sinhalese, in this depiction, have a sacred duty to preserve and propagate the Buddhist religion. Once the language law had empowered the majority, nationalists began emphasizing Buddhism to advance majoritarian gains. With Sinhalese Buddhists making up 70 percent of the populace, and with constitutional guarantees for minorities no more than minimal, the “one person, one vote” principle has allowed Sinhalese nationalists to institute their preferences.

The LTTE’s military defeat emboldened nationalists. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government thereafter pursued policies that continued to promote Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy and expanded authoritarian governance with the goal of creating a political dynasty. Militarization and Sinhalese colonization of the predominantly minority northeast  went forward even as attacks on the Muslim minority (about a tenth of the population) for supposedly threatening the Sinhalese Buddhist dispensation were tolerated. With the recent elections having returned the Rajapaksas and their allies to power at the head of a commanding two-thirds of Parliament, little stands in the way of ethnocratic despotism.

The Rajapaksa Regnum

Dynastic politics has long been a feature in South Asia and successive leaders within the SLFP and UNP testify to this in Sri Lanka. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s uncle and father were prominent SLFP figures with a strong southern political base at the time a 24-year-old Mahinda first ran for Parliament in 1970. In 2005, he succeeded Chandrika Kumaratunga—daughter of the SLFP’s founder—as president. Rajapaksa won the close race against the UNP after his campaign bribed the LTTE to bar Tamils living within the areas it controlled from voting.3 The LTTE colluded in this not for the money but because it feared that the UNP candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was ensnaring it in a “peace trap” and believed that Rajapaksa and his nationalist supporters would highlight Sinhalese Buddhist intransigence. The move backfired when the Rajapaksa government launched its no-holds-barred military campaign and crushed the Tigers.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was a reliable nationalist, but the defeat of the LTTE, which many experts had said was impossible, caused people to equate him with ancient Sinhalese monarchs. Rajapaksa capitalized on this popularity by calling an early presidential election, something that the constitution allows the incumbent to do after four years in office. In January 2010, he won a resounding 58 percent victory. Rather than pursue consensus, his second term combined nepotism, majoritarianism, and militarization with authoritarianism.

The Rajapaksas covered the commanding heights of Sri Lanka’s government. Chamal Rajapaksa (b. 1942), Mahinda’s older brother, became speaker of Parliament. Younger brothers Gotabaya (b. 1949) and Basil (b. 1951) determined, respectively, defense and economic policy. Numerous more junior family members obtained other government positions and sinecures. Gotabaya was an architect of the strategy that defeated the LTTE. While both the LTTE and Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes, most leading LTTE cadres were killed—some after surrendering to government forces—and Gotabaya is among government figures believed to have been responsible for war crimes.4

The Rajapaksa government avoided trying to reconcile with Tamils or accounting for alleged human-rights abuses by government troops. It also tolerated Buddhist monks and hooligans who fanned anti-Muslim violence. Sri Lanka’s Muslims mainly speak the Tamil language but use religion as their primary identity marker. The community consistently opposed the LTTE’s separatist quest, which is why the Tigers in 1990 drove out more than seventy-thousand Muslims who lived in the predominantly Tamil Northern Province. Muslims were also attacked in Eastern Province, with many murdered while they prayed in mosques. Some Muslims familiar with LTTE areas spied for military intelligence while their politicians lobbied Muslim states to take positions favorable to the Sri Lankan government in international forums. Muslims, then, were the “good minority” contrasted with the Tamils seeking to secede. The anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence that rapidly came to the fore following the civil war was jarring, especially since those who were denouncing and physically attacking Muslims clearly enjoyed impunity.

The war ended, but military mobilization did not. On the contrary, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa as defense minister and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as defense secretary, more bases were built, especially in Northern and Eastern provinces. The military also became involved in entrepreneurial activities in ways that undermined private businesses. Concomitantly, the People’s Republic of China began securing numerous infrastructure contracts. Benefits from these flowed to Rajapaksa family members and their cronies even as costly investments led to unpayable debts.

All this took place amid spreading authoritarianism that saw the judiciary compromised, political opponents harassed, civil society neutered, and critics “disappeared” and murdered. Most media resorted to self-censorship while numerous journalists sought shelter abroad. If the civil war justified extraconstitutional and extrajudicial practices during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term, the ham-handed authoritarianism that accompanied his second term sought to ensure a Rajapaksa political dynasty with oldest son Namal (b. 1986) being groomed to succeed his father.

An Early Election Backfires

A previous government had passed the Seventeenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, setting up various independent commissions under a Constitutional Council. In order to eliminate these power centers beyond his control, Rajapaksa forced through the Eighteenth Amendment, which nullified the Constitutional Council’s powers to oversee elections, the courts, the police, the civil service, state finance, and bodies meant to fight bribery, corruption, and human-rights abuses. Most importantly, Rajapaksa eliminated the two-term limit for president so he could run for a third term. This he did in January 2015, but his plan went awry. He lost to Maithripala Sirisena, who had been health minister and general secretary of the SLFP.

The corruption, executive overreach, and rule-of-law breakdowns associated with Rajapaksa had driven enough Sinhalese Buddhists into coalition with minorities to defeat him. He refused to accept this loss as final, however, and used many among the country’s almost ten-thousand Buddhist temples to flaunt his Buddhist credentials. Temple visits often became miniature Rajapaksa rallies. Sympathetic media, meanwhile, continued to feature the charismatic former president more than his bland successor. Within a month of the defeat, Rajapaksa supporters were holding massive “Bring Back Mahinda” rallies to promote his return.

Rajapaksa and his supporters sought to brand the SLFP-UNP unity government that had replaced him as illegitimate because most Buddhists had voted for Rajapaksa and because the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had become speaker of Parliament. They complained that the TNA held only sixteen seats, fewer than the number that pro-Rajapaksa SLFP members held. Egging on this discourse were Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who had long insisted that only Sinhalese Buddhists should hold the great offices of state. The SLFP’s pro-Rajapaksa faction at one point demanded that it should head the official opposition in Parliament, only to be denied with the observations that there were even more SLFP legislators who backed the government, and the SLFP could not be in both the government and the opposition at the same time.

The UNP and SLFP did well in the August 2015 parliamentary elections, but in February leading UNP members had been involved in a Central Bank bond-auction scheme that defrauded a national retirement fund. This scam became the target of several major investigations and undermined the unity government, which had taken office vowing to fight corruption and institute good governance as an antidote to the misfeasance and poor management of the Rajapaksa years.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his confidants also failed to get along with President Sirisena, partly due to sociocultural differences—they were urban while he came from rural roots outside the traditional elite. Consultation broke down as the quietly arrogant Wickremesinghe went off in his own direction, swathed in delusions of omniscience and fed by the belief that Sirisena had defeated Rajapaksa only by virtue of having had the UNP as an ally. The situation became so fraught that when Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa in October 2018, a two-month interval ensued during which each man claimed to be the rightful prime minister. This tragicomic constitutional crisis lasted until the Supreme Court ruled in Wickremesinghe’s favor.

The unity government was a keen disappointment to those who had worked to oust Rajapaksa and reverse the authoritarian dispensation that he had been setting up. Its most important achievements were passing the Freedom of Information Act and the Nineteenth Amendment, which defenestrated much of what Rajapaksa had pushed through via the Eighteenth Amendment. The independent commissions envisioned by the Seventeenth Amendment were restored, and civil society representation was added to the Constitutional Council. The Nineteenth also reimposed the two-term limit on presidency, cut the presidential term from six years to five, barred the president from dissolving any Parliament within the first 4.5 years of its mandate, and gave the prime minister new powers at the presidency’s expense.

Even this amendment fell short of full success, however. It gave rise to confusing and clashing interpretations in light of other constitutional clauses. On the political level, the amendment inflamed those who were eager to see a Rajapaksa comeback: The two-term limit barred Mahinda Rajapaksa from running again, the clause disqualifying dual citizens from contesting blocked his two most prominent brothers from seeking office (both held dual U.S.–Sri Lankan citizenship), and the clause raising the presidential age requirement to 35 kept Namal Rajapaksa out of presidential contention until 2021.

With Sirisena heading the SLFP, Rajapaksa supporters relaunched a minor party as the Sri Lanka Freedom Front (SLPP) in 2016. In the February 2018 local-council elections across the country, the SLPP won in a landslide, crushing both the UNP and the SLFP. Mahinda Rajapaksa officially joined the SLPP that November, when he was locked in his dispute over the premiership with Wickremesinghe. By then, a combination of “Bring Mahinda Back” momentum and the unity government’s travails had convinced most people that the SLPP would win the next presidential election.

The 2019 Easter Sunday Islamist terror bombings that killed 267 people made for a stark contrast between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s incompetence and the efficient way in which the Rajapaksas had squashed LTTE terrorism. Muslim leaders had alerted Sri Lankan authorities to the extremist activities of the bomb plot’s ringleader, while Indian intelligence authorities had provided Sri Lankan officials with detailed information about the impending bombings. The strained relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, however, prevented authorities from pursuing the leads. While there were outbreaks of retaliatory violence in certain areas, the country as a whole avoided the anti-Muslim carnage that many anticipated, thanks to the resolve with which the Roman Catholic bishops and other religious leaders spoke out against revenge. 

Nationalist groups wanted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to renounce his U.S. citizenship and run for president. A week before the bombings, Gotabaya had announced that he would indeed give up his U.S.-citizen status, earned during years spent working in California as an IT manager. A week later, he declared himself the SLPP’s presidential candidate. President Sirisena would have gladly broken his promise of serving one term in order to run again, but his support had cratered. Wickremesinghe has desired the presidency for more than two decades, but the Islamist attacks left him discredited, and there were charges that he favored Western interests too much and the preferences of his fellow Theravada Buddhists not enough. Amid much infighting, the UNP eventually nominated Sajith Premadasa, the son of a president whom the LTTE had assassinated in 1993.

Gotabaya’s campaign emphasized national security. Lay-Buddhist professional groups with names such as Duty and Educated Path burnished his credentials by associating him with meritocracy, expertise, and efficiency. The vast majority of Buddhists voted for him. In presidential elections, minorities mainly vote UNP; Tamils and Muslims did so in 2019. Catholics, who make up perhaps 6 percent of the population, typically vote UNP as well. In 2019, however, many backed Gotabaya because they resented how the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe imbroglio had left the country vulnerable to the Easter attacks (whose first two targets had been a pair of Catholic churches filled with worshippers). Despite speculation that there would be a runoff, Gotabaya won the race in the first round with more than 52 percent.

Upon becoming president, Gotabaya named his brother Mahinda prime minister. In March 2020, in line with the constitution, came a presidential dissolution of Parliament six months before its five-year term expired. Elections were to be held the month after, but there were postponements as part of the covid-19 response. When voting went forward on August 5, the SLPP stunned the electorate by capturing nearly 60 percent of the total vote and 145 seats (representing a gain of fifty seats). With five additional seats coming from allies, the party now enjoys a supermajority.

The runner-up with 54 seats was the United People’s Movement (SJB) led by defeated presidential contender Sajith Premadasa. The SJB is a vehicle for UNP members opposed to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s continued leadership of that party. In the presidential race, Premadasa had won nearly 42 percent, but in parliamentary polling his SJB took less than a quarter of the vote. This is not in itself unusual—minorities rally to the big parties in presidential races while spreading their votes among smaller ethnoreligious parties during parliamentary contests—but the SJB’s loss of nearly 2.8 million votes off its August 2019 total was shocking. The SLPP, by contrast, lost only about seventy-thousand votes off Gotabaya’s total and saw its share of the parliamentary vote rise by about 7 percentage points. In the presidential race, less than 1 percent of ballots had been rejected. In parliamentary contests, that share rose nearly fivefold to almost 4.6 percent. It seems that many UNP voters cast deliberately spoiled ballots to express frustration at their party’s inner split.

The success of the four-year-old SLPP—sweeping local councils, the presidency, and Parliament in just two years—is unprecedented. Sri Lanka has never seen its like. Four things explain the party’s rise. The first was the aimlessness, amid corruption and bickering, of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The second was the Easter bombings, which shone a horrifying light on the cost of government incompetence. The third was the internal UNP split caused by Wick-remesinghe’s monomaniacal craving to remain leader even as he steers the party to one electoral debacle after another. The final reason was the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic.

While official figures clearly understated things—as of mid-November 2020, the government was claiming that only 66 people had died from coronavirus—Sri Lanka initially did well at containing the spread of covid-19 infections.7 Progovernment media constantly highlighted the flailing pandemic responses seen in India as well as in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other developed countries. This made the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government look good despite the economic difficulties that the coronavirus crisis brought. Leading up to the parliamentary elections, nationalists claimed that the Gotabaya who had beaten violent separatists was beating covid-19, too. The message appears to have resonated with voters.

The humiliation that the UNP has suffered is also unprecedented. It has vanished from Parliament, having gone from 106 members to just a single seat (allocated as a so-called national-list seat based on the UNP’s share of the total vote, and not yet filled at the time of this writing in November 2020). In 2015, the UNP won nearly 46 percent of the popular vote; five years later, that figure was just over 2 percent.

Outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena was among thirteen SLFP members who ran under the SLPP banner to win a seat in Parliament. This makes clear how, thanks to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP’s supporters have switched to the SLPP, a further unprecedented development in the island’s politics. Given how Gotabaya and others within the Rajapaksa clan have acquired the supremo’s mantle by building on his credentials as a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist, it is likely that support for the SLPP will continue beyond the 75-year-old Mahinda’s departure from the scene.

Following the parliamentary elections, the UNP picked one of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cousins as its new deputy leader. If the UNP proves unable to reconcile with the SJB, the recent presidential and parliamentary elections may herald the permanent irrelevance of Sri Lanka’s two foremost postindependence parties.

Consolidating an Ethnocracy

An ethnocracy is illiberal because at base it eschews pluralism, but an ethnocracy need not be despotic. The longstanding Sinhalese Buddhist superordination and minority subordination in Sri Lanka amid competitive elections and party turnover in government prove the point. The island’s two recent elections, however, seem poised to make the country a despotic and militarized ethnocracy.

The ideology of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism views secularism and pluralism as Western constructs that weaken Buddhism’s foremost place on the island. The ideology also holds that minorities live in Sri Lanka at the sufferance of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.Nationalists insist on a unitary state superintended by Sinhalese Buddhists, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s promise to introduce a new constitution based on “one country, one law” seeks to strengthen such a regime. The proposed new constitution is designed to expand executive power and introduce an electoral system conducive to creating a Rajapaksa political dynasty.

The “one country, one law” slogan targets minorities. It suggests the elimination of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, a matter of recent controversy owing to cases in which very young girls have been forced into marriage. A ban on cattle slaughter may be in the offing as well. Buddhist hard-liners shun the consumption of beef. A slaughter ban would create an issue on which Hindus (who tend to be the island’s strictest vegetarians) could align with Buddhists. A ban would also hurt Muslims economically, given how many work in the beef trade. “Beef bans” are popular, finally, with the Hindu-nationalist forces that now predominate in Indian politics. Would a Sri Lankan ban make New Delhi better disposed toward Colombo? If a ban did so, it could make it easier for the Rajapaksas to achieve the longstanding nationalist goal of ending the nine Provincial Councils (PCs) created by the India-backed Thirteenth Amendment (1987).9

Nationalists dislike the Buddhist-minority demographic situation in Northern and Eastern provinces. A way of reversing that, as some nationalists’ statements suggest, would be to replace the PC system, which devolves powers to these subnational governing bodies, with one that would make those provinces parts of larger areas dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists. India, whose population is 6 percent Tamil, has repeatedly asked successive Sri Lankan governments to use the PCs for accommodating the legitimate grievances of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. The PC structure allows for a certain minority pluralism, which is precisely why Buddhist nationalists dislike PCs. Nationalists seem now to believe that growing Chinese involvement in the country will make New Delhi eager to keep Sri Lanka “on side,” thereby giving the island extra bargaining leverage as it seeks to terminate the PC system and promote Sinhalese colonization.

With military personnel seen as war heroes and the armed forces serving as a major source of jobs for Sinhalese, most tolerate militarization. Nationalists favor larger armed forces because they want to see the families of serving and retired soldiers colonize the northeast. Sinhalese colonization of especially Eastern Province was a major reason for Tamil separatism, and the policies that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has instituted since becoming president suggest that Tamils and Muslims living in these regions have reason to be concerned.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government had done well to pare back the military’s conspicuous presence in the northeast. As soon as Gotabaya became president, however, security checkpoints began appearing on some roads and outside certain houses of worship in Northern Province. The Defence Ministry took charge of registering NGOs, with military-intelligence officers probing their staffs and funding sources while monitoring civil society activities. Such practices had been common during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. Their reintroduction within days of his brother’s inauguration has sent an ominous signal—NGOs and civil society groups are full of people who had been at the forefront of efforts to oust Mahinda from the presidency in 2015.

Tamils and Muslims had mostly voted against Gotabaya, yet he promised to be the leader of all Sri Lankans. This could not mean that he believed in treating all citizens equally: At the 4 February 2020 Independence Day celebration, he disallowed the singing of the national anthem in Tamil, an old practice that the previous government had reintroduced. Even if one interprets such a petty gesture as a sop to Sinhalese extremists, this and other slights hint at how little the regime cares about minority sensibilities.

In 2015, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government cosponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution to promote reconciliation with Tamils and account for alleged atrocities committed during the war. The administration moved slowly even on less controversial mechanisms such as setting up bodies to deal with reparations and missing persons. The hot-button matters were the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission and hybrid war-crimes court that would have had both international and local investigators, prosecutors, and judges. Pro-Rajapaksa forces denounced the latter two institutions—which never actually came into being—continually and to great political effect. In February 2020, the Gotabaya administration officially withdrew Sri Lanka’s cosponsor-ship of the resolution. Since the president and many among the military personnel whom he has appointed to high office are the subjects of war-crimes allegations, the withdrawal hardly came as a surprise.

As it withdrew, the new administration vowed to pursue reconciliation within the framework of Sri Lanka’s own laws. The following month brought an event that showed how empty this promise was. Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave a presidential pardon to an ex-sergeant who was on death row (despite Sri Lanka not having executed an inmate since 1976) for slitting the throats of eight Tamil civilians, three of them children, in 2000. The Colombo High Court had convicted him in 2015, with the Supreme Court upholding the verdict four years later. Sri Lankan authorities had cited these judicial actions while making assertions that the country needed no outside involvement in dealing with rights violations.  This pardon, capped by the decision of a high Defence Ministry official—himself a retired general suspected of war crimes—to greet the sergeant on his release, made a mockery of such claims.

Hinting at the despotic ethnocracy to come, the government in early June 2020 created a “Presidential Task Force to Build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society.” This body, with its Orwellian name, consists of thirteen intelligence, military, and police officials whose missions include “prevention of drug menace,” the taking of “immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups” deemed “harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society,” and taking “legal action against persons responsible for the illegal and antisocial activities . . . while locating in other countries.” With a mandate that vague, it will likely be easy for this body to target any dissenters whom the regime wishes to go after.

A second body set up at the same time as the first is called the “Presidential Task Force for Archeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province.” It initially comprised eleven members including two Buddhist monks. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who meets with leading monks every month (they form his Buddhist Advisory Council), added four more monks to this “heritage” task force after the parliamentary elections. The government gazette authorizing their inclusion claims that since the archeological heritage in Eastern Province is influenced by Buddhism, “the guidance and patronage of the Venerable Maha Sangha is still needed” to identify and manage that heritage. None among the six Buddhist prelates on the task force has any archeological expertise. Moreover, the panel includes no Tamil or Muslim members even though those two groups together make up nearly 77 percent of the population in Eastern Province.

Although this is no longer widely known, until a few hundred years ago, Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, like their coethnics in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu at India’s southern tip, practiced Buddhism. The Buddhist archeological legacy in northeastern Sri Lanka is therefore not a Sinhalese preserve. The task force’s real goal is to weaponize archeology to further a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist aim. That aim is to move more Sinhalese into the northeast.

Among those prominently campaigning for Gotabaya Rajapaksa were retired military personnel. Many now fill civilian government posts. So, more troublingly, do a number of serving officers. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Sri Lanka Customs, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, the Consumer Affairs Authority, and the national Disaster Management Centre are all currently run by military men. The 77,000-strong Sri Lanka Police, including the Criminal Investigation Division, are now under the authority of the Defence Ministry.

The government’s covid-response effort also has a heavy military presence. Army commander General Shavendra Silva heads the effort.  Since February 2020, he and members of his family have been banned from entering the United States because of accusations that he ordered extrajudicial killings in 2009, during the end phase of the civil war. Despite Gotabaya’s decision to ignore calls to name a qualified public-health expert to run the country’s covid response, the island’s health sector initially did a good job of containing the virus. Moreover, the armed forces likewise acquitted themselves well in enforcing curfews and overseeing quarantine centers. The president and his circle appear to associate the military with competence and civilian bureaucrats with its opposite. Fifty-thousand new college graduates recruited for civilian government jobs recently went through a month of training administered by the military on military bases. There is no reason that a similar program could not be extended to cover people already in the civil service. Such efforts bid to expand the military’s influence within the government and, ultimately, society as a whole.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, his family oversaw around 70 percent of the budget through ministerial portfolios. Gotabaya has promised efficient and meritocratic development. Yet the return of his family to power, coupled with all the presidential friends (including some from California) who now hold key posts, suggests that Sri Lanka is in line for more Rajapaksa-family aggrandizement and crony capitalism. 

The months in 2020 during which Parliament was dissolved but voting for a new one could not go forward gave the president a chance to ignore the rules governing budgets and spending. Neither parliamentary authorization nor parliamentary oversight could be brought to bear. Because the Nineteenth Amendment bars the president from holding cabinet portfolios, Gotabaya Rajapaksa initially avoided appointing a defense minister and instead used the Office of the Secretary to the Defence Ministry to manage security affairs. Once his new cabinet was sworn in, however, he dropped this workaround and simply named himself defense minister. To justify these moves, Rajapaksa supporters pointed to clauses in the constitution that they say contradict the Nineteenth Amendment in these matters.

As a career soldier (he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel), Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the first president of Sri Lanka to have come to office without any real parliamentary experience. During his first tour as defense minister, his family called him “The Terminator” thanks to his penchant for extrajudicial and extraconstitutional actions. It was during the Rajapaksa years that military groups abducted and “disappeared” journalists and others critical of the government. This past, combined with the nationalists and hard-line soldiers around him, threatens to make Gotabaya Rajapaksa the most authoritarian president that Sri Lanka has ever had.

The Twentieth Amendment, passed in October 2020, makes clear that this process is already underway. While the Rajapaksas and their allies had promised to invalidate most of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Twentieth Amendment not only reintroduces executive powers contained in the Eighteenth Amendment, but also lays the basis for an executive able to turn Parliament, the courts, and the bureaucracy into presidential playthings.

Despite the Supreme Court pushing the government to modify the Twentieth Amendment before it passed Parliament, the regime can now replace the Constitutional Council, which is meant to guard the civil service from politicization, with a toothless Parliamentary Council. The president is able to fire the prime minister and cabinet and has the power to make appointments to the supposedly independent commissions overseeing matters such as elections, policing, human rights, judicial affairs, public finance, and anticorruption activities. The Twentieth Amendment also empowers the president to appoint the attorney-general, the auditor-general, and judges of the Supreme Court and courts of appeal. Indeed, by increasing the number of Supreme Court justices from eleven to seventeen, and Court of Appeal judges from twelve to twenty, the Twentieth Amendment allows President Rajapaksa to pack the higher judiciary with loyalists. Additionally, dual citizens can now serve in Parliament and operate as prime minister or president. This positions Basil Rajapaksa (who has not renounced his U.S. citizenship) to succeed Mahinda or Gotabaya.

Sri Lanka is an electoral ethnocracy. One gauge of this is Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet: Its 66 ministers include just three Tamils and a lone Muslim, despite these two communities together amount to more than a fifth of the populace. Will this electoral ethnocracy now become a despotic ethnocracy? The island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority has used the franchise to benefit from the former. Will this majority consent to the latter? Sri Lankans take their right to vote seriously, and they hold public protests often. Some, including Buddhist clerics who supported Gotabaya, protested against the Twentieth Amendment. It is also instructive that in certain prominent Sinhalese Buddhist areas, the SLPP saw its vote share decline from the presidential to the parliamentary election. The government cannot rely solely on ethnoreligious solidarity to keep the Sinhalese majority on its side. It must maintain a healthy, growing economy and rising living standards.

Sri Lanka relies heavily on the garment-assembly industry, tourism, and remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad (especially in the Middle East) to keep its economy afloat. The covid-19 pandemic has severely affected all these sources of foreign earnings, and the rapid spread of the virus since the parliamentary elections is eroding the government’s popularity. Deep public debts created by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s predilection for expensive “blingfrastructure” projects bearing his name are driving a balance-of-payments crisis. Cows graze at the cricket stadium that Mahinda (a fan of the game) named after himself, while “his” airport draws more visits from snakes and elephants than from people. The deepwater port at Hambantota is such a costly money-loser that the government had to turn it over to China (which built it) on a 99-year lease. Hoping to ease the balance-of-payments problem, Gotabaya has curtailed imports and introduced autarkic policies. Soon, he will have to raise taxes. Between now and 2024, however, Sri Lanka will have to come up with $4 billion a year to service a foreign debt that totals more than $50 billion (against a nominal GDP of only about $92 billion). Meanwhile, the World Bank is predicting that the island’s economy will contract by 5.5 percent in 2020.

The Rajapaksas, like other entrepreneurs of ethnopolitics, have prospered by kindling ethnosectarian insecurities. If economic discontents make them feel threatened, will they respond by using nationalist appeals to redirect anger onto minority groups? Perhaps, but they may also be mindful that ethnic strife will be bad for tourism, exports, and foreign investment, and temper their extremism accordingly. What is certain is that the Rajapaksas are determined to stay in power over the long term and they will therefore make regime change exceedingly difficult to bring about. The Twentieth Amendment makes this clear, and the new constitution that they will try to ram though will make it even clearer. This proposed constitution will need approval by popular vote. Will the island’s citizens, led by civil society and the opposition, feel motivated to thwart the Rajapaksas—and prove able to do so? That will determine Sri Lanka’s political trajectory.

Neil DeVotta is professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. His essay “A Win for Democracy in Sri Lanka” appeared in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Read the original version of this essay published in the Journal of Democracy 

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