‘Crucial dynamics’ of Sri Lanka political crisis

Olivia Miller
Picture by Unsplash

Dr Rachel Seoighe, a criminologist specialising in Sri Lankan civil war and society resistance at the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, comments on how there is more to the protests in Sri Lanka than an economic crisis:

‘The circumstances of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s resignation have been dramatic – unprecedented mass mobilisations on Colombo’s streets saw people converging on the capital – sometimes walking miles and hitch-hiking – to be part of this historic overturning of one family’s grip on power. The storming of the president’s residence by protestors was spectacular in every sense. Footage of protestors jumping in the president’s pool, enjoying the luxuries of the residence, and watching the media coverage of the protests on the president’s own television offered scenes of joyful, revolutionary uprising that have captured the popular imagination around the world. As people reclaiming an elite political space that had been cushioned from the harsh economic realities, uncertainty and degradation imposed by Rajapaksa through economic mismanagement and corruption. Yet, there are crucial dynamics underdiscussed in this mainstream coverage, which Tamil commentators Sinthujan Varatharajah, People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) and the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research (ACPR), amongst others, have articulated.

‘Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s supporters in his democratic election in 2019 were overwhelmingly the Sinhalese population in the South. He won on a narrative of war heroism, as the Secretary of Defence who ‘won the war’ against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. As a so-called ‘military energiser,’ he and his brother – then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa – fought a ruthless ‘final war,’ which was designed to secure the family’s political future on a platform of a violent Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This nationalism excludes and oppresses the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, who have suffered killings on an unimaginable scale, and land grabs, mob violence and religious persecution in the post-war period.

‘These Sinhalese protestors were not on the streets or occupying state residences in 2009 when Gotabhaya directed a campaign of genocidal violence against Tamil civilians in the Northeast. Heart-breaking and persistent gatherings of Tamil families of the disappeared have protested on roadsides for years, calling for accountability and information relating to their loved ones. Tamil protestors have demanded that Gotabhaya and other leadership figures such as Sareth Fonseka face international justice for their role in mass atrocities crimes in 2009 and throughout the war. These protests have been largely ignored by mainstream international media. It must be emphasised that the current protestors are from the majority population who voted Gotabhaya into power despite his violent history and nationalistic, anti-minority stance.

‘In their Joint Tamil Civil Society Statement: Sri Lanka’s Political and Economic Crisis, seven Tamil organisations and coalitions have articulated the need for a real political reckoning with Sri Lanka’s ethnocratic political structures and history of atrocities. These popular protests may seem like an invigorating and exciting popular uprising, but we must understand that Gotabhaya’s violence and dispossession of Tamils and Muslims has been supported or ignored by protestors. The absence of these issues from media coverage also needs to be redressed.’

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