Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation after his swearing in ceremony held at the 140 B.C Ruwanweli Seya Buddhist temple in ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka, November 18, 2019. Photo: AFP

With Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa clan back in power, the island nation is by any measure firmly back on a path to elected authoritarianism.

But the Rajapaksas aspire not just to the concentration of power in the office of the president, currently occupied by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but rather a new and potentially destabilizing form of absolute ethnic majoritarianism.

Backed by a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ideology, the Rajapaksas are implementing a new system of power and governance that not only leaves minimal space for Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minorities to participate in politics but also promises a return to Sinhalese dominance over minority Tamils, who are predominantly Hindus.

The enactment of the 20th amendment in October, which effectively concentrates power in the office of the president, shows how political, ethnic and religious forms of authoritarianism and dominance are intersecting in a new exclusionary system – a sea change that could have significant implications for a society still healing from decades of ethnic-based civil war.

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), which started armed clashes against the Sinhala dominated government in 1976 and launched a full-scale insurgency fighting for an independent state in 1983 in the island’s north and eastern regions, were defeated in 2009.

Currently, there is no palpable internal insurgent threat, an environment that has allowed the proponents of Buddhist nationalism to push the country once again towards Sinhalese dominance.

This return to the past is rooted in a typical nationalist ideology that projects minorities as aliens harboring fissiparous tendencies. The LTTE’s fight was sparked by anti-Tamil pogroms at the hands of the Sinhalese. Now, government officials are resurrecting some of the same symbols and claims that sparked past clashes.

A Tamil man holding the flag used by the former seperatist Tamil Tigers movement in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Carl Court

“Sri Lanka is not the homeland of the Tamil people,” recently said Udaya Gammanpila, the current Minister for Energy and a co-spokesperson of the government. “The Tamil people in Sri Lanka are only a migrant ethnic minority, not a sub-national minority. Their true homeland is Tamil Nadu in India.”

“Unlike Pakistan where the Baloch, the Sindi and the Pashtun have their homelands in Balochistan, Sind and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Tamil people in Sri Lanka came either as invaders in the distant past or were brought by the British authorities in the colonial period to help them run the administration,” the minister said.

“Therefore, they [the Tamil people] are not entitled to rights and powers that a sub-national minority would normally have in countries like India or Pakistan.”

Internal divisions have not helped Tamil political parties to coherently counter this new rising Sinhalese nationalism and revisionism. Their demands for a devolution of power to the northern and eastern provinces where they represent as much as 70% of the population is fragmented, weakening their ability to pressure the government to address what is commonly referred to as the “national question” that was at the core of the war.

Sinhalese-dominated governments have papered over those demands in the past. The constitution’s 13th amendment, enacted in 1987, allows for the creation of “provincial councils”, but the provision is widely seen in Columbo as an Indian imposition and hence the councils have never been allowed to function independently.

Tamil political parties continue to carp that the provincial councils are hamstrung and are thus meaningless faced with concurrent provisions in the constitution that allows Colombo to intervene and dictate provincial policies.

Indeed, in the prevailing configuration, the centrally appointed governor is more powerful than the provincial chief minister.

Representatives of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna SLPP think that there is no “national question” in Sri Lanka and therefore there is no need for any further devolution of power beyond what is outlined in the 13th amendment.

Accordingly, they think that the nation needs strongman rule and a team of “professionals” to put the country on a path to economic development and prosperity.

As it stands, however, most of these supposed “professionals” in the Rajapaksa government are ex-military. Since Sri Lanka’s military has always been a Sinhalese-dominated institution, their presence in otherwise civilian institutions strongly reflects the ongoing “Sinhalese only” project under the Rajapaksas.

Sri Lankan special forces commandos take part in a military ceremony. Photo: AFP/Ishara S Kodikara

Gotabaya’s selection of retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne, who has been appointed as both defense secretary and chairman of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), is emblematic in this regard. 

Gunaratne is a close associate of Gotabaya and played a key role in organizing his winning presidential campaign in 2019. The Sri Lankan military, while a completely Sinhalese-dominated institution, is also known for its utter opposition to devolution of power from the Columbo to the provinces.

Gunaratne, who commanded the Army’s 53 division and was key in the last brutal phase of the war against the LTTE, is representative of the military’s rising role in politics and administration.

That augurs ill for any decentralization initiatives. Previous attempts to devolve powers from the center to the periphery were largely allowed due to the pressure of war.

Now in relative peace, proponents of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism still believe that devolution of power carries a hidden agenda to territorially disintegrate Sri Lanka and establish a separate “Tamil Elam” state, as envisioned by the vanguished LTTE.

They believe that while the LTTE has been defeated, separatist ideals are alive and well among Tamil political parties. Although the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) promotes a federal constitution to resolve the perennial “national question”, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology remains firmly committed to a unitary state.

Such a state lends itself to strongman rule, which if Gotabaya has his way will soon be codified in the national constitution.  

A proposed 20th amendment aims to give most constitutional powers to the president’s office. Many Sinhalese favor such a concentration of power since the country’s 2018 constitutional crisis, which underscored to many the incapacity of a multi-party coalition to effectively govern and revive the economy.

An Independence Day celebration from colonial rule in Columbo. Image: AFP

That experience has apparently convinced many that the cure for “multi-party chaos” is the exact opposite: one-man rule.

While politics plays a part, popular support for a strong presidential form of government equally stems from a romantic view of a utopian Sinhalese-Buddhist past.

Some Sinhalese nationalists see the presidency as a modern reproduction of the ancient monarchy, a return to a fabled, glorious past that can guarantee the unity of the country and the primacy of Sinhalese-Buddhists, ironically perhaps with the Rajapaksas at the top of the celestial polity.