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.
In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – about 250 dead, according to revised government figures – it feels disrespectful to the people of Sri Lanka to be dissecting what went wrong even as the dead are being buried.
But the reality is that most, if not all, of these lives need not have been taken. We owe it to them and their loved ones to make sense of what happened and work towards doing all that can be done to ensure it does not happen again.
The Easter attacks represent one of the most lethal and serious terrorist operations since the September 11 attacks in the US, outside of attacks within active conflict zones. And this in a now peaceful country, which for all its history of civil war and ethno-nationalist terrorism in decades past has never had a problem with jihadi radical Islamist terrorism.
A return to deadlier, more coordinated strikes
The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday night. This could help explain how one local cell based around a single extended family circle of hateful extremists not previously known for terrorism could execute such a massive attack. It was larger even than IS’s previous truck-bomb attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attacks follow a familiar, if now rarely seen, IS operandi of coordinated suicide bombings. The targeting of Catholic churches, which made little sense initially in the context of the domestic social issues at the heart of the country’s recent civil war, fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
The fact that 40 or more Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS could help explain how the terror network was able to build vital personal links in the very small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists so it could subcontract its attack plans to them. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria and foreign IS supporters in the bombings remains under investigation.
The Easter weekend attacks more resemble the al-Qaeda attacks of the 2000s than they do recent attacks of IS. Like the 2000 attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, the September attacks in New York and Washington, the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2003 truck bombs in Istanbul, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London, the Sri Lanka bombings involved multiple attackers acting in concert. With the exception of September 11, all of these also involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication and deadliness, despite the fact the perpetrators were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism.
Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out significant attacks outside of conflict zones. It has also become increasingly focused on “reputation management” and has tended to avoid indiscriminate mass killings, all the whilst growing its global network of affiliates.
The emergence of IS saw the tempo and scale of terrorist attacks transformed. Most attacks took place in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern Philippines).
A number of significant attacks were conducted well beyond the battlefield. There were at least four such attacks in 2014, 16 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 10 in 2018. The vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone actors.
Why was it that, outside of conflict zones, not just al-Qaeda but even IS at the height of its powers focused largely on lone-actor attacks?
It is probably not for want of trying. The reason is that most larger, more ambitious plots were tripped-up by intelligence intercepts. This is especially the case in stable democracies, including our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia.
Why Sri Lanka?
The other big question is how one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever was able to be executed in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group a decade ago through military might, Sri Lanka has become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police and non-military intelligence capacity to counter terrorism.
At the same time, it has struggled with good governance and political stability. Just six months ago, it faced a major constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his deputy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and attempted to replace him with the former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The attempt failed, but in the stand-off that ensued, Wickremesinghe, and ministers loyal to him, were excluded from intelligence briefings. In particular, they say that they were left unaware of the multiple warnings issued by the Indian intelligence service, RAW, to the authorities in Colombo about the extremist figures who played a key role in the Easter attacks.
Thus, despite several discoveries earlier this year of large amounts of explosives stored in remote rural locations on the island, and multiple warnings from the Indians, including final alerts just hours before Sunday’s attacks, the government and security community were left distracted and caught off-guard.
Between “fighting the last war” and fighting each other, they deluded themselves that there was no imminent terrorist threat.
What other countries are vulnerable?
If the massive attacks in Sri Lanka over Easter serve to remind us that IS is very far from being a spent force, the question is where this energetic and well-resourced network will strike next.
For all that it achieved in Sri Lanka, IS is unlikely to be able to build an enduring presence there. So long as the Sri Lankan government and people emerge from this trauma with renewed commitment to unity – and with elections at the end of the year, this is far from certain – the “perfect storm” conditions exploited by IS are unlikely to be repeated.
So where else is IS likely to find opportunity? India and Bangladesh continue to present opportunities, as does much of Central Asia. In our region, it is Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines that we should be most worried about.
Malaysia has emerged stronger and more stable from its swing-back to democracy but continues to be worryingly in denial about the extent to which it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, downplaying the very good work done over many years by the Special Branch of the Royal National Malaysian Police.
Thailand and the Philippines remain less politically stable, and rather more brittle than they care too acknowledge. And both tend to delude themselves into thinking that the problems of their southern extremes will never manifest in a terror attack in Bangkok or Manila, respectively.
The people of Sri Lanka have paid far too high price for the lessons of the Easter weekend attacks to be ignored or forgotten.
Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, are the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.
While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people have been arrested. Three police were killed in their capture.
The Sri Lankan government has blamed the attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues.
These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. By fomenting generalised religious hatred, they appear to have more in common with Al-Qaeda, which has sought specific political change.
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?
For many, the bomb blasts immediately recalled Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war. The war was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009.
In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war’s total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.
The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009. Many Tigers, including their leader, were summarily executed. There remains much bitterness among Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.
A history of unrest
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike proclaimed himself “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”, and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.
Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000 third and fourth generation “Indian” Tamils were forcibly removed to India.
In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the “Black July” Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.
The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Extremist violence isn’t new
Sri Lanka’s Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. They have been at the margins of these more recent conflicts – excluded as Tamil speakers, but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.
As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.
But if so, this raises the question of why Christian churches and upmarket hotels were bombed, rather than symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalisation and its possible manifestations. It is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider jihadi agenda.
It is instructive that, when the suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained, and there have been suggestions of international links. This contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.
The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting.
If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.
This week, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court made a dramatic intervention in the country’s deepening political crisis, a move that may prevent it from sliding further into democratic dysfunction and possible political violence.
The three-judge panel overturned the unilateral action by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena to illegally dissolve the parliament last week. The ruling means that parliament could reconvene as soon as Wednesday (November 14).
Jubilant supporters of sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe celebrated the decision outside the heavily guarded Supreme Court building in the nation’s capital, Colombo. It is being seen as one of the most significant rulings in Sri Lanka’s history.
How Sri Lanka got to this point
The Supreme Court ruling is the latest twist in a tense political drama that has engulfed the nation since late October, when Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and installed civil war strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. He then called for a snap election on January 5 – an election now in considerable doubt.
Sirisena cited a conspiracy to have him assassinated as a key reason for his actions. But he had no constitutional basis for either the dissolution of parliament or the removal of a sitting prime minister.
The president’s move to dissolve parliament came just days before it was scheduled to reconvene and vote on which of the two men claiming to be prime minister should be actually recognised as holding the job.
Sirisena and Rajapaksa had tried but failed to induce enough MPs to switch sides. Dissolving parliament, however unconstitutional, became their only path to self-preservation.
So… who is the prime minister?
Sri Lanka has a long democratic tradition dating back to British colonial times. It has seen many ups and downs, including a brutal 25-year civil war that ended in 2009 and the rise of an authoritarian-style leader in Rajapaksa (who served as president from 2005 to 2015).
But never before have Sri Lanka’s constitution and its democratic principles been so undermined.
Since his sacking, Wickremesinghe has continued to claim he is the legitimate prime minister with the support of the majority of parliament.
But Rajapaksa has thus far appeared to have the confidence of the president and key state institutions.
Why was Wickremesinghe sacked?
The possible return of Rajapaksa had ignited deep concerns within Sri Lanka and abroad.
It was only three years ago that his own party split and aligned with the major opposition parties to propose Sirisena as a consensus presidential candidate.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were unable to work together and none of their key promises were met. Meanwhile, the economy went backwards.
The coalition seemed doomed when local elections in February were dominated by a new party, established by the Rajapaksa family.
The final straw was the alleged assassination plot against Sirisena, apparently involving neighbouring India. The plot was raised in Cabinet, but Sirisena was unhappy with the response and acted by sacking Wickremesinghe, claiming his life was in danger.
It was the policy differences between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, however, that was really at the heart of the discontent. Sirisena declared that if Wickremesinghe returned, he would “not stay one hour longer”.
So what happens now?
Sirisena initially said he suspended parliament last week to allow his “new government” to appoint a Cabinet and present a budget.
Yet, it was allegedly done to provide enough time for the Rajapaksa camp to bribe MPs to his side. One MP claimed to have recorded Rajapaksa’s henchmen offering him US$2.8 million.
Meanwhile, crowds have taken to the streets in support of each side, while Wickremesinghe has remained holed up in the prime minister’s official residence, surrounded and protected by supporters and fellow parliamentarians. Two people have been killed.
History suggests that Rajapaksa would have succeeded in convincing enough of those who opposed him to switch sides. But this is no ordinary power struggle.
Why is Rajapaksa’s possible return so fraught?
Rajapaksa’s presidency was punctuated by his controversial response to the civil war and abhorrent end of the conflict, which saw tens of thousands of innocent people killed.
His rule was increasingly authoritarian, nepotistic and corrupt. At one point, his family controlled more than half of Sri Lanka’s budget, and he’d succeeded in amending the constitution to grant himself more powers and the prospect of a presidency for life.
And this is leaving aside the geopolitical implications of his presidency and possible return to government. Some commentators have portrayed the current crisis as a power struggle between India and China. And it is certainly true that India would prefer Wickremesinghe, and China, Rajapaksa.
During his time in office, Rajapaksa sought Chinese investment to build a major port in Sri Lanka, leaving the country in serious debt. Unable to pay back the Chinese loans, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China on a 99-year lease.
Given this history, it’s not surprising China was the first of only a few countries to recognise the Rajapaksa prime ministership.
But in the end, this is really about domestic politics. And whatever happens, a return to violence is a real possibility. The Supreme Court’s intervention has stopped Sri Lanka’s democracy going over the cliff for now. But it remains on the edge.
Rajapaksa’s strategy will be to delay a confidence vote in parliament for as long as possible, and to redouble efforts to convene a majority. But if he fails, he may be tempted to use force to get his way, and Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit will become a gaping chasm.
Earlier last month, Thileepan Gnaneswaran was separated from his wife and 11-month-old baby and deported from Australia back to Sri Lanka, the country from which he had fled six years ago. On his arrival in Colombo, he was taken into custody and questioned by Sri Lankan police.
He’s since been released, but the ordeal was no doubt a traumatic experience, given his claims of being interrogated and tortured by Sri Lankan security forces during the country’s long-running civil war due to his family’s connections with to Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Two other Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, a married couple in Queensland only identified publicly by their first names (Nadesalingam and Priya) for security reasons, also received deportation notices this year. They and their two small children were taken from their home in a dawn raid by immigration officials, and are currently being held in detention.
In late June, a court order temporarily halted the deportation of Priya and her eldest daughter. But the family now faces the possibility of being separated, as well.
These are just two of the more public cases of Tamil asylum seekers facing deportation from Australia in recent months. Given Australia’s intense secrecy on asylum issues, we know much less about 116 Sri Lankans who were in detention as of April, or the 42 holding precarious bridging visas who also face an uncertain future.
Wave of Tamil asylum seekers
Like Gnaneswaran, most Tamil asylum seekers in Australia have serious claims of abuse at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces.
This is generally due to actual or perceived links to the LTTE, which waged a 26-year insurgency against the Sri Lankan government. The war came to a brutal end when the Tamil fighters were defeated in 2009. Upwards of 100,000 civilians are believed to have died in the war.
Since the end of the war, some 115,000 Sri Lankans have fled the country, some ending up in Australia. Sri Lankan boat arrivals to Australia spiked in 2012, when they comprised the largest source country of asylum seekers. Between 2012-13, only 11.6% of their applications were accepted, even though many claimants had documented evidence of experiencing torture and violence in Sri Lanka.
Due to the increase in boat arrivals during this time, the Australian government introduced a policy of enhanced screening for asylum seekers in October 2012.
The policy sought to “screen in” or “screen out” asylum seekers on the basis of a single entry interview, before they were even able to lodge a protection visa application. Because those “screened out” were never told why they’d been rejected, the policy lacked transparency and accountability.
The Australian Human Rights Commission noted that as of May 2013, immigration officials had conducted 2,596 screening interviews of Sri Lankan asylum seekers and returned more than a third of them to Sri Lanka.
Two versions of the current political climate
Australian immigration officials rely heavily on “country information reports” provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to determine claims for asylum. Passages from the reports are often extracted by immigration officials in visa refusal letters.
But in the case of Sri Lanka, these reports often differ from the experiences of Tamils living there and the observations of international organisations and human rights groups.
Take, for example, the issue of the threat of torture by police or the military. The 2018 DFAT report states:
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) cited 24 cases of torture in 2016 and 2017. An Associated Press article published in November 2017 claimed 52 incidents of torture, which included the cases reported by the ITJP. … However, DFAT is unable to verify allegations of torture in 2016 and 2017.
A 2017 report on Sri Lanka by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees takes a more cautious approach:
The use of torture remains a serious concern. In its report submitted to the
Committee against Torture, in November 2016, the Human Rights Commission of Sri
Lanka stated that complaints it had received illustrated the routine use of torture by the police throughout the country as a means of interrogation and investigation.
In its 2017 report, ITJP documents torture during the same time period involving beatings, whippings, burnings with cigarettes, brandings with hot metal rods and other methods.
In addition, rape and other forms of sexual violence and humiliation continue under the (Maithripala) Sirisena regime. The methods of torture remain consistent and the severity of the torture is not diminishing in the cases the ITJP has studied for this report.
What happens when Tamils go home
There’s evidence that asylum seekers being sent back from Australia this year are also being targeted by security forces.
Shantaruban, a Tamil asylum seeker and former member of the LTTE, was deported in February this year, despite a request for a delay from the UN Committee Against Torture while it investigated whether he would face torture upon returning to Sri Lanka.
According to the Tamil Refugee Council, a grassroots group that advocates for Tamil asylum seekers in Australia, Shantaruban was arrested at the airport in Colombo and has experienced ongoing harassment. Security forces have made multiple visits to his home and recorded the details of his wife and children, including the school his children attend.
Returned asylum seekers will continue to face such uncertainty and strife until policymakers in Australia – and other countries where Tamils have sought refuge – start looking beyond their country information reports and listen to the accounts of asylum seekers to find the truth instead.