The Rajapaksa family’s tightening grip on Sri Lanka

 Strong words at the UN Human Rights Council in March and in the High Commissioner’s September oral report on Sri Lanka added pressure on the government to address lingering injustices with seriousness and urgency.

by Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic provided additional cover for a regressive turn in Sri Lankan politics. The consequences of economic and political crisis became starkly evident shortly before the year ended as the hold of the Rajapaksa family on the Sri Lankan state tightened.

From early 2021, the dead came to haunt the Rajapaksa regime, as the government — against all medical and scientific advice — continued to enforce the cremation of deceased Muslims. This drew major backlash from local civil society groups, the medical community and some in the international community. When the policy was eventually changed, it was not due to any government change of heart, but more likely intended to avert harsh words at the UN Human Rights Council’s March deliberations in Geneva, when a country-specific resolution on Sri Lanka was delivered.

While alleged war criminals continue to enjoy impunity, the regime clamped down on freedom of expression, harassing and intimidating journalists and expanding the use of draconian laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Though such moves were noticed in international fora, the government used the pandemic as an excuse to silence dissenting voices and clamp down on protests. These included mothers in the North seeking justice for lost children, youth protesting the privatisation and militarisation of higher education (the KNDU Bill) and farmers protesting overnight import bans on chemical fertilisers.

Strong words at the UN Human Rights Council in March and in the High Commissioner’s September oral report on Sri Lanka added pressure on the government to address lingering injustices with seriousness and urgency. Strong objections were raised to Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record during debates related to extending the EU GSP+ tariff scheme at the European Parliament in June. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister in Geneva and permanent representative to the United Nations in New York both claimed an international conspiracy in response.

There were a few glimmers of hope for the victims of war crimes in practice. The administration of US President Joe Biden imposed travel bans on some of the Sri Lankan military’s top brass. The Hague-based people’s tribunal indicted the Sri Lankan government after probing the 2009 killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge — a vocal journalist who reported on the infamous 2006 MIG-deal implicating Sri Lankan President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was then defence secretary.

The government played the victim in the domestic arena. The newly-formed Commission on Political Victimisation was mandated to investigate the ‘victimisation’ of public servants and state officials working in corporations, the armed forces and police. The Commission’s lofty aims were not met, and instead it became a means to ensure the ruling Rajapaksa family and their friends continue to avoid facing justice. Those who lodged legal complaints against the regime’s supporters were ‘persuaded’ to withdraw them.

Further militarisation of the state was evident with the appointment of more military personnel to civil posts. Partisans, military elites and Buddhist monks were richly rewarded for supporting the regime, while Rajapaksa ensured an intensified ‘Buddhisation’ of state institutions. Prominent Buddhist monks were given high-ranking positions on the Human Rights Commission and one was appointed as Vice Chancellor of Colombo University. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Task Force) leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara — a convicted criminal who has incited violence against the minority Muslim community — was ironically appointed to the President’s new pet political project, ‘One country, One law’.

The Rajapaksa regime’s economic mismanagement of state resources through continued rewards to capitalist cronies and family members further reinforced Colombo’s economic decline. Credit agency Fitch Ratings predicted impending economic crisis after downgrading Sri Lanka’s economy to CC status in December 2021. In the last quarter of 2021, Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by 1.5 per cent and foreign currency reserves shrank from US$7 billion in 2019 to US$1.5 billion in December. Subsequently, government import restrictions led to widespread food and fertiliser shortages.

Further misery was added to households battling soaring inflation by a series of gas cylinder explosions due to poor quality gas imports. Colombo also fell out of grace with the IMF, which offered COVID-19 relief packages to most countries other than Sri Lanka, citing the government’s unwillingness to restructure its ailing economy. Rapid passage of the Port City Bill concerned some citizens and the media, who noted that the bill mainly benefits close friends and relatives of the Rajapaksas — while reinforcing close ties with Chinese state companies.

While Fitch downgraded Sri Lanka’s economy to CC, disheartened citizens downgraded the President’s status from the ‘Terminator’ to ‘Nandasena’, his first name. This symbolic political move was an attempt to distinguish between the decorated war-winning defence secretary — often identified by his second name, Gotabaya, or pet name ‘Terminator’ — from the President entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the welfare of all.

It is hard to imagine what positive political and economic developments can reasonably be expected in Sri Lanka in 2022. The pandemic means that global economic growth is likely to be sluggish or even negative, and Sri Lanka’s political elite seem intent on worsening the domestic economic crisis. Perhaps Prime Minister Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spiritual visit to India at the end of the year — as well as the offerings he made to Indian deities — will miraculously cure Sri Lanka’s ills. The US$500 million in emergency loans requested by Colombo from India that may materialise in 2022 more likely will.

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is an Assistant Professor in conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. This article is part of an East Asia Forum special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.