Sri Lanka’s current economic and political crises have seized headlines around the world in the past week, with dramatic images of angry protesters overtaking the Presidential Palace in the capital, Colombo, causing then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, with thousands tracking his flight in a strange “Where’s Waldo” of war criminals, and ultimately forcing an anticlimactic resignation by e-mail.
Sri Lanka has not received this much international attention since 2009, when the war turned into a “bloodbath” as the Sri Lankan military bombed and shelled Tamil areas. Yet Sri Lanka’s current crisis is simply the tip of the iceberg: just below the surface is the hydra that is Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, of which Rajapaksa is the most virulent proponent. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is a racist ideology that considers the island only for the Sinhalese, where other communities — notably, Tamils and Muslims — do not belong. Like the 969 movement in Myanmar, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is supported by a military-monastic complex which permits genocidal campaigns in the name of Buddha.
The protestors who swarmed Colombo last week have focused almost exclusively on economic concerns, while ignoring the longstanding Tamil demands of accountability, demilitarization, and a sustainable political solution. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is the poisonous thread that links the anti-Tamil chauvinism underpinning every Sri Lankan institution, and it is the root cause of Sri Lanka’s present political and economic crises. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism explains why, just one year after independence in 1948, Sri Lanka stripped the citizenship of nearly 1 million Tamils; why Sri Lanka then passed the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 to make Sinhala the only official language; why the police stood by or actively participated in Sinhalese attacks against Tamils in 1956, 1958, and Black July in 1983; why the Constitution affords Buddhism the “foremost place” and declares it “the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddhist Sasana;” why the Jaffna Public Library and its collection of 95,000 ancient Tamil manuscripts was burned to the ground in 1981; and, ultimately, why the majority Sinhalese electorate voted for the Rajapaksas in 2005 and 2019.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is only a symptom; the disease is Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
Sri Lanka’s Mass Atrocities and 13 Years of Impunity
In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother, was elected on a mandate to end Sri Lanka’s decades-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“LTTE”), no matter the cost. Mahinda appointed Gotabaya as defense secretary, and they soon devised a no-holds-barred military campaign against Tamils in LTTE-controlled areas of the North-East, designed to inflict mass casualties. The campaign began in September 2008 as Sri Lanka ordered international organizations out of the North-East, clearly signaling that mass atrocities were soon to follow. Despite Tamils begging not to be abandoned, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations evacuated the region, a decision the U.N. later recognized was a “systemic failure.”
The shelling and bombings of Tamil areas quickly escalated, with reports of tens, and then hundreds, and possibly thousands of Tamils being killed daily — and deliberately. Sri Lanka ordered civilians into three consecutive “No Fire Zones” and then bombed and shelled them mercilessly. Hospitals and makeshift hospitals were attacked at least 30 times. The war reached its brutal end on May 18, 2009, in Mullivaikkal, marked as Victory Day by Colombo but Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day by Tamils.
The following year, in 2010, then-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a Panel of Experts to examine issues of accountability in Sri Lanka. The Panel of Experts reported credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, calling the conduct of the war a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law.” The Panel of Experts estimated 40,000 Tamils were killed, though the U.N.’s subsequent internal review of its conduct in Sri Lanka estimated 70,000 were killed, and other estimates are as high as 169,796 killed.
In 2013, after sustained advocacy by Tamils and their allies, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution authorizing a comprehensive investigation on Sri Lanka — the Office of the High Commissioner’s Investigation on Sri Lanka (“OISL”) — which, unsurprisingly, found “horrific levels” of abuses, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence.
Unfortunately, none of these U.N. reports have led to justice. Sri Lanka has not ratified the Rome Statute, so the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction is circumscribed. No foreign state has prosecuted Sri Lankan government or military perpetrators under their universal jurisdiction laws. Nor has any state taken Sri Lanka to the International Court of Justice for its flagrant violations of its international legal obligations, such as those under the Convention Against Torture or the Convention against Enforced Disappearances.
So the Tamils’ fight for justice and accountability has continued, returning to the U.N. Human Rights Council and securing another resolution in 2021 and another investigation, the OHCHR’s Sri Lanka Accountability Project, with a sharper focus of pursuing criminal justice. The mandate for the Accountability Project is set to expire this September, but options for accountability for the mass atrocities of 2009 are broader now than ever before.
Accountability is the Answer to Sri Lanka’s Problems
Now that they are out of office, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brothers, including Mahinda, who was forced to step down as prime minister in May, are no longer protected by immunity, which had stymied earlier efforts for justice in U.S. courts against another Sri Lankan general in 2012 and against Gotabaya himself in 2019. These figures can now, finally, face criminal or civil prosecution in the United States or elsewhere for ordering and overseeing the mass killing of Tamils.
And this is exactly what Tamils — and indeed Sri Lankans — need. Accountability is the mirror that can show Sri Lankans who voted for “the Terminator,” as his family admiringly called him, in record numbers what exactly they voted for. Accountability is the answer to Sri Lanka’s seven decades of ethnocracy and ethnic out-bidding, in which the politician with the most Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinist credentials won. Accountability is the way Sri Lankans can confront the rule of law crisis that permeates the island, from dynastic politics to the militarization that Tamils have endured for years and which Sinhalese are now experiencing in their own streets, as protesters were tear-gassed and journalists attacked. Sri Lankans have raised alarm at the brute force tactics of the security forces – something Tamils know all too well – now that they are being used in the capital, but have not gone far enough in challenging the militarized, ethnocratic nature of the state.
Similarly, the economic collapse has demonstrated the perils of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency – which Tamils also know too well – as it vests overwhelming power in the office, without any prospects for federalism or meaningful power-sharing. Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency is what enabled the Rajapaksas to adopt inept economic policies such as a ban on synthetic fertilizer essentially overnight, thereby crippling Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector; a handover of a strategic port to China, thereby reducing revenue streams; and investment in harebrained development projects in the Rajapaksas’ hometown of Hanbantota, adding more unsustainable debt to Sri Lanka’s balance of payments crisis.
A Window of Opportunity to Reimagine the Sri Lankan State
At independence, Sri Lanka appeared to have a bright future ahead as the “pearl” of the Indian Ocean with the highest literacy rates in South Asia. Now Sri Lanka is bankrupt and facing a food crisis with the prospect that it will be importing rice, which it previously exported for profit.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a mass murderer and arguably a genocidaire, should never have been elected president. But the collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy cannot be blamed solely on him. Sri Lanka’s slow and steady descent from the promise it showed at independence occurred over successive Sri Lankan regimes, all of which were fueled by and focused on persecuting Tamils.
Sri Lanka must take a hard look at the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that has driven it for more than seven decades if it wants to reverse its race to the bottom. Otherwise, Sri Lanka’s next president will be simply yet another Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Indeed, Gotabaya’s nephew, Namal Rajapaksa, is still clinging to his own political ambitions, even turning on his father, Mahinda, when the political winds shifted two months ago. Another Rajapaksa, another war criminal, is not the solution Sri Lanka needs.
Sri Lanka needs a dramatic reimagining of its state and nation. For too long, it has conceived of itself as one nation, one state. This fundamental incompatibility with reality on the island — where Tamils identify themselves as a distinct nation with the right to self-determination and are thus perceived as an existential threat to the Sinhalese Buddhist nature of the state — is what has fueled Sri Lanka’s decades-long cycles of conflict and instability.
The centralization of power in Colombo and its singular focus on promoting Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has fettered the prospects and trajectory of the entire island. With nearly 20 percent of government-paid salaries going to military personnel focused on Sinhalizing the North-East, with 1 soldier for every 2 civilians in Mullaitivu in 2017 — nearly 10 years after the armed conflict ended — Sri Lanka’s institutions are hyper-focused on eliminating the Tamil nation, even while access to basic necessities such as food, fuel, and medicine, was diminishing.
The international community must ensure Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brothers and generals are investigated and prosecuted wherever they end up. Within Sri Lanka, governance must shift from the center, where it is premised on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, to regionalized autonomy. This will enable Tamils to control their own political future and manage key aspects of self-governance, such as education, development, and policing. Tyranny of the majority has driven Sri Lanka to the economic and political collapse it finds itself in now, and Sri Lankans must confront the hydra of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism by recognizing the state’s role in committing alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Moreover, Sri Lanka must respect Tamils’ right to self-determination and self-governance.
Bilateral and multilateral engagement with Sri Lanka around its dual economic and political crises must embrace dual solutions: justice and accountability for Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities and a sustainable political solution that recognizes the pluri-national character of the island and meaningfully devolves political, economic, land, and security powers. Forthcoming financial assistance must be predicated on safeguarding the rule of law in Sri Lanka to ensure a favorable climate for sustainable investment, and this must include requiring Sri Lanka to ratify the Rome Statute with retroactive effect to 2002. This will pave the way to investigating and prosecuting the Rajapaksas in California or The Hague.
These past few months, Sri Lankans have begun pulling back the curtain on the corruption and fecklessness that has plagued the island since independence. Justice and accountability for Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities will contribute to this process, forcing Sri Lankans to recognize the island’s problems did not start (and will not end) with the Rajapaksas. A real reckoning with Sri Lanka’s past and a sustainable political solution that addresses Tamil aspirations will ensure the island as a whole will be more stable, prosperous, and peaceful.
Without a dramatic shift in the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the populace and Sri Lanka’s institutions, Sri Lanka’s history of crisis and conflict will repeat itself.