Seven months after a horrific terrorist attack that killed 250 people, Sri Lankans voted to choose a new president. A total of 35 candidates ran in the presidential election, the third since the end of the country’s lengthy civil war in 2009. The now former president, Maithripala Sirisena, decided not to run for reelection after heavy criticism following the Easter Sunday bombings. These bombings were conducted by militants linked to Islamic State. The attacks targeted churches and high-end hotels across the country and at least 253 people were killed. Shortly after the bombings, the Sri Lankan government was forced to admit they suffered a “major intelligence lapse.” The defense secretary of Sri Lanka had received an Indian intelligence warning about planned attacks, but this information was not properly shared by the authorities.
The Easter Island bombings of Sri Lanka have had a multitude of negative effects. The attacks have ravaged the country’s economy, damaged communal relations, and destroyed confidence in the government. Last year, Sri Lanka attracted a record 2.2 million visitors Among those killed in the bombings, earning around 4.4 billion dollars. The travel guide, Lonely Planet, named it as the world’s top tourist destination of 2019. Of those killed in the attacks, 42 were foreign nationals. During the weeks following the attacks, tourist arrivals dropped up to 70%. Following the bombings, many countries issued travel advisories warning their citizens to avoid Sri Lanka. Foreign tourists cancelled their visits in mass. Most affected by the reduction in tourism is the hotel industry and its employees. Thousands of workers are estimated to have been made redundant or not had their temporary contracted renewed. Additionally, restaurant workers, tour guides, and travel companies have been affected by the downturn in tourism.
Out of Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, 10% are Muslims and the vast majority are Sinhalese Buddhist. Following the Easter Island attacks, many Muslims have felt demonized. In several parts of Sri Lanka, houses and businesses owned by Muslims have been attacked. In the town of Kiniyama, hundreds of people charged into a mosque, burning Qurans and breaking windows and doors. Additionally, a senior Buddhist monk openly called for the Sinhalese Buddhists to not buy from Muslim shops. The government also banned public face covering following the attacks. The law was directed towards ensuring security because the garments hinder identification. The Muslim community was critical of the decision, however, because Muslim women could no longer wear traditional Islamic dress including niqabs and burkas.
Former wartime defense chief of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won a presidential election that split the country along ethnic lines. The election was a two man race despite having 35 names on the ballot. Rajapaksa received 52.25% of the vote while his biggest rival, Sajith Premadasa, received 41.99% of the vote. The votes in the election were clearly divided among ethnic lines. Rajapaksa won dominating victories in Sinhalese majority areas while Premadasa received many of his votes from the Tamil-dominated north. This division raised concerns regarding lasting embitterment from a brutal civil war between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and Tamil Tiger rebels. In this war, lasting from 1983 to 2009, at least 100,000 people were killed. The results of the election reflected lasting ethnic polarization resulting from this conflict, where votes appeared divided between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the minority Hindu, Tamil, and Muslim groups.
President Rajapaksa himself played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war. Under his brother’s presidency, Rajapaksa served as defense secretary in 2005 and again in 2010. As defense secretary, Rajapaksa and his brother oversaw the military operation that ended the Tamil separatist conflict. During this conflict, however, the Rajapaksa government was accused of human rights violations. Towards the end of the civil war, thousands of people disappeared, and many were said to have been tortured and killed. Even in the years after the conflict, political opponents of the Rajapaksas, including activists, journalists, and businessmen, were captured and never seen again.
Following his election, President Rajapaksa put aside Sri Lanka’s history of ethic conflict and called for unity, “It is my duty to serve all Sri Lankans without racial or religious discrimination. I promise to discharge my duties in a fair manner.” I question, does Rajapaksa truly seek ethnic unity, or will he continue the historical ethnic divide in Sri Lanka, establishing a majoritarian government for the Sinhala majority? One Muslim woman expressed concern regarding a possible Rajapaksa victory leading up to the election, “If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins, I see a lot of violence and racism ahead. Most of these racist groups are aligned with this party.” This election draws strong comparisons to the political ideology of Prime Minister Modi in the neighboring country of India. Both leaders drew their support from a majority group, the Hindus in India and the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and Rajapaksa could very well follow the footsteps of Modi, promoting majoritarianism and ethnic nationalism. Additionally, this election calls into question whether national unity is a pre-requisite to democracy. Will Rajapaksa only serve the interests of the Sinhala Buddhists and infringe upon the rights of the ethnic minorities? Will the minority Hindu, Tamil, and Muslim groups become frustrated with Rajapaksa’s rule and start another ethnic conflict? The election of Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, following the rule of Modi in India, may prove to be the start of an alarming trend in Asia, ethnic nationalism and majoritarianism.
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McGivering, Jill. “Sri Lanka Election: Unity Hard to Achieve in Divided Country.” BBC News, BBC, 17 Nov. 2019
“Sri Lanka Attacks: Government Admits ‘Major Intelligence Lapse’.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Apr. 2019
“Sri Lanka Attacks: The Beach Paradise That Wants Its Tourists Back.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Oct. 2019
“Sri Lanka Election: Wartime Defence Chief Rajapaksa Wins Presidency.” BBC News, BBC, 17 Nov. 2019