A documentary on the 2019 Easter bombings, released this week by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 but expected for a long time, has opened a political can of worms in Sri Lanka. In a nutshell, the documentary centers on the alleged complicity of the country’s former ruling family, the Rajapaksas, in the terrorist attack, which left 269 people dead.
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who figures in the drama as its chief antagonist, has called it an “anti-Rajapaksa tirade” and a “tissue of lies.” The current government, now under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has stated it will conduct a fresh investigation into the attacks, a pledge that is not likely to win them support from the Catholic Church.
What is particularly damning in the documentary is the line that the directors draw between the Rajapaksas’ rise to power, the rise of anti-minority nationalist sentiment in roughly the same period, and the shift in anti-minority discourse, after the war, from the Tamil to the Muslim population. Whether or not Channel 4 has extrapolated wildly, it is clear that the directors have noted a link between these developments, and have framed the Easter bombings as a tragic culmination of them – one that was avoidable but at one level inevitable.
The documentary comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Wickremesinghe government, when the regime’s very raison d’être is being called into question.
Wickremesinghe, whose own party controls just one seat in Parliament, needs the support of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Rajapaksa-linked party that rose to power in the aftermath of the attacks. Yet in 2019 it was the SLPP that accused Wickremesinghe, who was then prime minister, of neglecting national security. While the Supreme Court ordered the then-president, defense secretary, and other officials to pay compensation to the victims of the attacks, Wickremesinghe is largely seen as a victim of the nationalist mobilization that followed the bombings – even if, as the prime minister, he also had a mandate over security.
In other words, the alliance that installed Wickremesinghe in power has always been fragile. Now the Channel 4 documentary has lobbed a figurative bombshell. Given that two ministers in the current government who do not belong to the SLPP – Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando, both of whom defected from the opposition last year – have already called for a “more comprehensive and impartial investigation,” how long this setup will last is left to be seen.
Meanwhile, though the government has managed to secure economic aid, or pledges to that end, from multilateral and bilateral donors, it continues to battle an ever-growing mass of discontent and dissent from the country’s trade unions and civil society. The documentary, in that regard, will likely complicate matters even further for Wickremesinghe.
Moreover, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s annual sessions, which are coming up later this month, will in all probability pick up the documentary and its emphasis on anti-minority sentiment in Sri Lanka. Already two MPs from the main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), have pledged to make representations in Geneva regarding the country’s health crisis and the government’s complicity in it. On the accountability front too, then, the Channel 4 dispatch is not going to help the current dispensation.
A common refrain running through almost all criticisms of Wickremesinghe’s administration is that it lacks credibility. This is largely because the current government is linked, by necessity and opportunity, to the previous one. There is of course no love lost between them: on more than one occasion the ruling party, the SLPP, has criticized if not denounced Wickremesinghe. But this arrangement has been a two-way street: The SLPP has been giving the numbers to Wickremesinghe in Parliament – they were, after all, crucial in electing him to that position in the legislature, after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country – while the president in turn has ensured the SLPP’s numerical preponderance in Parliament. The Channel 4 documentary has the potential to rupture this arrangement.
It would be farfetched to claim the documentary will bring down the government, however. For one thing, Sri Lankan opposition parties are heavily divided; they seem more prone to taking potshots at each other than at the government. The opposition itself is riddled, one could say muddled, with parliamentarians who were at the forefront of the nationalist mobilizations that followed the Easter attacks. While these MPs have not commented on the documentary yet, their response to any international scrutiny of Sri Lankan politics is predictable. If these MPs use the documentary in their campaigns against the current regime, then, it is likely they will do so while appealing to nationalist sentiments.
In other words, the documentary is likely to rupture the opposition. In the course of last year, a number of parties entered into several pacts. These included a section of the SLPP that now sits in the opposition, the radical left Frontline Socialist Party, and the main opposition, the SJB. While it is possible that the Channel 4 report will help them rally around a common front against the government, their antagonism to the regime may be articulated in different ways, with some parties pandering to nationalist sentiment and others calling for further investigations into the attacks. It goes without saying that a divergent response from the opposition is likely to benefit the regime temporarily, even as it faces pressure abroad.
The documentary can either strengthen or weaken the SLPP’s dependence on Wickremesinghe. In the short term, it is likely to strengthen it. Regardless of his unpopularity at home, the president has remained untainted by the 2019 Easter attacks. The immediate impact of the documentary would have been different if Gotabaya Rajapaksa was president, but instead his rival from the 2019 election is in the post.
The SLPP, on the other hand, is seen as part and parcel of the series of events that led from the Easter attacks to its massive electoral victories in the 2019 presidential polls and the 2020 parliamentary polls. As result they lack any credibility, even if they have the numbers that Wickremesinghe – the sole sitting MP from his outfit, the United National Party – does not.
To be sure, Wickremesinghe and the SLPP don’t see eye to eye on many issues, particularly on Sri Lanka’s recent negotiations with India over such sensitive areas like devolution of power to the country’s north. Reports of the Sri Lankan government preparing to hand over the Trincomalee Harbor to Indian entities have exacerbated these tensions, to the extent that the general secretary of the SLPP, Sagara Kariyawasam, questioned the president’s capacity to take decisions on such issues.
More recently, Kariyawasam contended, in response to ongoing protests against the regime’s tax hikes and austerity measures, that such policies were what protesters across the country had asked for last year. He cryptically added that “as a party, we do not agree with the ongoing activities.” In the longer term, then, the Channel 4 documentary can potentially deepen these tensions.
Complicating the domestic political picture, hence, are the many ideological linkages that have connected seemingly disparate parties together. The opposition today is riddled with nationalist, liberal, left-wing, and right-wing figureheads. The government is not as diverse. This point has so far been in the latter’s favor. But there is a fundamental contradiction in the current dispensation between the SLPP, a party known for its mobilization of divisive nationalism, and Wickremesinghe, known for his pro-Western views and sympathies. Indeed, the president has gone beyond many of his predecessors in making amends with India, to the consternation of left-wing parties and at least one political analyst.
On the economic front, of course, there is no fundamental disagreement between the president and the ruling party: sectors like fuel are being opened to foreign companies. On the security front, vis-à-vis sensitive topics such as devolution of power in the north, however, there is.
Against this backdrop, the Channel 4 documentary will deepen divisions and contribute to an even more polarized society. It has the potential of further dividing an opposition already divided from within, and of unifying a government also divided from within, though the divisions in the latter have yet to completely come out into the open.
At the center of the documentary are the 269 victims of the bombings, and their families. For them, justice has been evasive, and authorities have been too slow, for whatever reason, to find out the truth. Unwittingly, then, Channel 4 has revealed the many ruptures that have, since 2019, defined Sri Lanka and more or less epitomized it. Come election time next year, the documentary may serve an even more crucial purpose: that of helping Sri Lankans decide their country’s future.