Sri Lanka’s presidential election on Saturday comes at a critical time for the country. The government has been in turmoil since President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the prime minister last year and replaced him with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, a move that sparked a three-month constitutional crisis.
Then came the Easter bombings this year that killed over 250 people, including two Australians. Sirisena was accused in a parliamentary report of “actively undermining” national security and failing to prevent the attacks.
A harsh crackdown on the country’s Muslim minority followed, including arbitrary arrests and detention, according to human rights groups, often with state complicity. Sinhalese nationalist politicians have also been blamed for injecting
new energy into long-standing efforts to undermine the status and prosperity of the Muslim community.
Sirisena, who is not seeking re-election, has not fulfilled many of the election promises he made four years ago. He ran on issues of economic reform and achieving lasting peace on the island following its long-running civil war. But today, Sri Lanka is still very much a divided nation.
Another Rajapaksa back in office
A record 35 candidates are running for president in the upcoming election. Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the opposition party SLPP is favoured to win.
Gotabaya is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and served in his decade-long administration as defence secretary. Under their watch, the government became increasingly authoritarian and was blamed by the minority Tamils and Muslims for political violence and repression.
However, among the Sinhalese majority, Gotabaya is a national hero for orchestrating the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers rebel group in 2009 and bringing an end to the 26-year-long armed conflict.
Gotabaya’s popularity increased significantly following the Easter Sunday terror attacks, thanks to his aggressive stance on terrorism and national security. He is viewed by many Sinhalese as a strongman similar to his brother, who can guarantee their safety and produce economic growth.
However, Gotabaya remains deeply unpopular among the Tamil and Muslim communities, as well as some Sinhalese critics.
The United Nations has accused Gotabaya’s military of committing numerous abuses in the final stages of the civil war, including torture, extrajudicial killings and repeated shelling in the no-fire zone.
Earlier this year, Gotabaya was sued in the US for authorising the extrajudicial killing of a prominent journalist and the torture of an ethnic Tamil. The lawsuit also includes allegations of rape, torture and brutal interrogations in army camps and police stations between 2008 and 2013.
Gotabaya has dismissed all the allegations against him as “baseless” and “politically motivated”.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has also repeatedly denied that his government was responsible for civilian deaths during the end of the war. If elected, Gotabaya said he would not honour an agreement the government made with the UN to investigate alleged war crimes.
According to some UN estimates, around 100,000 people were killed in the civil war, though a later UN report said 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months alone.
The UN has noted that only a proper investigation can lead to an accurate figure for the total number of deaths.
For nearly 1,000 days now, the Tamil families of those who disappeared at the end of the civil war have staged a protest to demand the government provide information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
If Gotabaya wins the election, it will do little to ease the longstanding grievances of the island’s Tamil people, let alone the escalating tensions between the Sinhalese and Muslim community.
His main contender, Sajith Premadasa, is the son of another former president, Ranasinghe Premadasa (1989-93). He has been promising a social revolution that includes everything from eliminating poverty to universal health care to tax concessions for small- and medium-sized businesses.
Premadasa has also promised to ramp up national security, including through the appointment of Sarath Fonseka as the head of national security.
Fonseka was the army chief during the end of the civil war. In 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa jailed Fonseka for suggesting that Gotabaya had ordered all Tamil Tiger leaders to be killed and not allowed to surrender. Sirisena ordered him to be released when he took power.
What does the election mean for Australia relations?
A Gotabaya presidency is unlikely to change the deepening relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka. Labor and Coalition governments have pursued better relations with both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena governments following the end of the war.
However, the cooperation between the two countries will become harder to justify if Gotabaya wins the election, given the allegations he faces of war crimes.
Recent years have seen a closer strategic alignment between the countries, given Sri Lanka’s pivotal position in the Indian Ocean and China’s increasing presence in the region.
Australia gave two offshore patrol vessels to Sri Lanka in 2014, and this year, sent 1,200 ADF personnel to take part in a joint taskforce in Sri Lanka – the largest-ever defence engagement between the countries.
If Australia wants to continue to position itself as a leader of democratic values, it needs to play a greater role in facilitating lasting peace in Sri Lanka.
There is an opportunity for Australia to challenge the next president of Sri Lanka to address the real concerns facing minority groups on the island, not least because they continue to seek safety and protection in Australia.