Fears that Sri Lanka mass violence will return as hardliner seeks presidency

By Savi Hensman
November 8, 2019

In many countries, the run-up to elections can be tense. In Sri Lanka, there are further fears because of the island’s history of mass violence, with evidence of repeated involvement by one of the leading candidates.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is running for president on behalf of the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, that is, People’s Front) on 16 November 2019. He is a former army officer and defence minister. His main rival, Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party, is a less than impressive politician.

Economic problems made worse by neoliberalism have led to widespread discontent. Yet if Rajapaksa wins, his willingness to inflame ethnic and religious tensions and lack of respect for human rights may make matters even worse.

He is caught up in a legal battle in the USA, after the daughter of a newspaper editor whose assassination he allegedly arranged in 2009 brought a lawsuit against him. But some allegations date back three decades. While part of his attraction to his supporters is his willingness to get tough, serious questions arise about how far he is ready to go.

The soldier who never truly returned to civilian life

In the 1980s, violence spread throughout Sri Lanka. State-backed atrocities and ethnic cleansing helped to drive many in the Tamil minority into the arms of armed nationalist groups, which themselves attacked civilians. One of these, the Tigers, also wiped out some of its rivals in its leader’s thirst for power and terrorism spread.

Muslims, another minority, found themselves alternately targeted and appealed to by battling armies. Paramilitary squads often linked with the ruling party often ‘disappeared’ suspected dissidents and rebels.

In the south, disadvantaged youth mainly from the Sinhalese majority rose in revolt, as a crackdown on democracy closed off routes for peaceful dissent. This group, the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People's Liberation Front), also intimidated and murdered the defenceless.

In crushing the JVP rebellion, young men and teenage boys were sometimes rounded up and murdered. The discovery of at least 154 skeletons in Matale a few years put the spotlight on former Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, sent to stamp out opposition in that area. Some of the remains showed signs of torture.

Many of those sucked into the conflict later gave up extreme violence but, in this instance, concerns persisted. He rose to high office and, as Defence Secretary, took on the task of defeating the Tigers. Rebel leaders used Tamil civilians as human shields – but the armed forces blasted their way through these, committing acts which the United Nations and other human rights bodies have pointed out are illegal . Thousands of civilians died and it is alleged some captives were murdered.

Evidence has also surfaced about his role in the build-up to the Easter 2019 terror attacks, including allegedly funding both Muslim and Buddhist extremists. Countering organised crime and terrorism can be tricky and use of informants is widespread, including protecting them from arrest so that bigger fish can be caught. But if it true that he backed ringleaders of a group which went on to blow up worshippers and people in hotels, killing at least 253 and leaving many others injured, this was at least a grave error of judgement, at worst a terrible wrong.

Acting to minimise harm

In a way, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's personal story reflects the tragedy of a widespread failure properly to grieve past losses and learn from what went wrong. Sometimes fighters may discover they have a talent for violence of various kinds, which may make it harder to return to relating in nonviolent ways: such people should be helped, not encouraged to continue on this track. The willingness of so many in Sri Lanka to back him all the same, reveals the dangers of denial, with lessons for the rest of the world.

Meanwhile those who care about peace, human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka and beyond, including fears about further destabilising South Asia, may have a hard task ahead. This may include solidarity with those of all communities who are threatened: most immediately Tamils of whatever faith, Christians and Muslims, as well as dissidents. In the longer term, people who are Sinhalese and Buddhist too, even if not very ‘political’, may once again face grave abuses.

Overseas governments may need to be persuaded that, whatever the outcome of the election, overlooking lawless cruelty would be unwise. And across the world, valuing common humanity over the quest for power matters more than ever.

© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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