Earlier this month, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s president, following his victory in the country’s eighth presidential elections. Gotabaya replaced Maithripala Sirisena, who did not seek reelection, amid widespread concerns internationally about his human rights record. To better understand the implications of the Sri Lankan presidential elections, the source of Gotabaya’s victory, and the likely effect of his presidency on the post-civil war reconciliation process and human rights more broadly, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke to Taylor Dibbert, a human rights consultant and adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum.
The Diplomat: What domestic political dynamics in Sri Lanka do you primarily attribute Gotabaya’s victory to? Is this as simple as a resurgent wave of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?
Taylor Dibbert: National security, law and order, and economic revival were prominent campaign issues. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his allies are easily able to link security to ethnonationalism and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has always been a very powerful political force in Sri Lanka.
Additionally, the coalition government that was formed in 2015 didn’t accomplish many of their objectives and there was a broad sense that Sri Lanka was rudderless, particularly after the Easter bombings. There’s no question that the Easter attacks helped Rajapaksa’s candidacy.
Sajith Premadasa, Rajapaksa’s principal contender, did quite well with Tamil and Muslim voters. But that should be seen more as a rejection of the Rajapaksa brand, as opposed to a real endorsement of Premadasa.
Many expect the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities to come under further siege. What external forces — if any — can play a role in limiting the human rights fallout?
Speaking about these topics with the Rajapaksa administration – both publicly and privately – is essential. More generally, it really comes down to prioritizing human rights at the bilateral level. This can be a challenging balancing act.
A variety of European countries, Canada and the U.S. could play productive roles. Of course, Sri Lanka’s relationship with India is extremely important. I’m not optimistic, however, that an administration led by Narendra Modi would have a lot of interest in prioritizing Muslim concerns in Sri Lanka. I’m also skeptical that the Trump administration would prioritize human rights.
Economic aid and investment to Sri Lanka would be something to revisit; this could be done through multilateral institutions too, such as the International Monetary Fund or the Asian Development Bank. Grassroots organizations working on human rights and democracy issues deserve continued institutional and financial support – from other countries and multilateral donors.
Countries like the U.S. should immediately reconsider the ways in which they engage with Sri Lanka’s military. Since Sirisena came to power, there’s been far too much security cooperation and training, and basically zero security sector reform. In fact, alleged war criminals continued to be promoted in Sri Lanka. And, now we have another alleged war criminal as president. This notion of always thinking that more engagement is constructive, and that security sector reform is inevitable should be discarded.
Relatedly, the UN could do a much better (and more thorough) job of vetting Sri Lankan peacekeepers. An indefinite suspension would be appropriate. Given the military’s atrocious record, I find it so disappointing that members of the Sri Lankan military are allowed to serve in this role at all.
Lastly, as Sri Lanka returns to an authoritarian footing, it’s key for international human rights organizations and others residing outside the country to keep the pressure on.
What about the United Nations-backed reconciliation process? Gotabaya, before his election, said that he would work with the UN, but that he “can’t recognize what they (past Sri Lankan governments) have signed.” Should we expect him to keep to this pledge?
In 2015, the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored a resolution at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The resolution promulgated a bold transitional justice agenda. The transitional justice program took a couple early steps in the right direction, yet it has mostly been a road to nowhere.
The coalition government was never sincere about transitional justice or addressing the root cause of Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethnic conflict. Another Rajapaksa administration will certainly be even more intransigent. So yes, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to repudiate previous commitments that Sirisena and company had made at the HRC. However, the previous government wasn’t meaningfully engaging with those commitments anyway; that was a big missed opportunity.
What indicators should we look to for signs of increased repression in Sri Lanka?
Keep an eye out for reduced media freedom and greater self-censorship; this is already happening. Public protesting will likely decrease. More generally the space to speak freely will shrink and the repression of dissent is expected to become commonplace.
Attacks against minorities would be another indicator, including attacks on places of worship or places of business. These need not be led by government actors; they could be done in conjunction with ordinary citizens. Or you could see anti-minority violence appear and then have government actors – like state security personnel – look the other way. These sorts of issues are longstanding concerns; they’re expected to increase now.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see NGOs throughout the country – particularly in the heavily militarized north and east – getting visits from security personnel. Offices may be raided. As a minimum, we can expect people working on rights issues (or anything controversial), writers or journalists to come under serious scrutiny – threats, intimidation, verbal abuse, and things that are far worse that what I’ve just mentioned. The Rajapaksas are truly ruthless; they’ll move quickly to centralize power and weaken institutions.
Finally, the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks have changed the conversation on internal security in Sri Lanka and Gotabaya certainly played this up in his election campaign. What are the ways in which internal security issues might shift under this new president?
The Rajapaksa administration will probably start cracking down on the Muslim and Tamil communities under the auspices of national security. Extensive (and unnecessary) surveillance of both communities are likely to be part of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Both arrests and arbitrary detention are likely to increase. The militarization of civilian life will probably grow.
Sri Lanka’s security sector needs reform in a host of areas. Nonetheless if the Rajapaksas promote an anti-minority agenda, that would further divide the country and fuel more violence.
This interview has been edited.