Sri Lanka overwhelmingly voted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be their new president earlier this month, and he was sworn into office November 18. This is a terrifying specter for the ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims on the island.
Tamil families of the disappeared, some of whom last saw their loved ones in one of Gotabaya’s infamous “white vans,” recently marked their one-thousandth day of protest. In Sri Lanka, there are at least 60,000 to 100,000 unresolved cases of enforced disappearances — most of which were perpetrated by the state against Tamils during the final phase of the armed conflict between the state and Tamils.
Frustrated by government inaction, beginning in 2016, Tamil mothers led roadside protests demanding answers about their loved ones. The protests call for the names of surrendees and detainees taken by government security forces; a list of all secret detention centers and detainees held there; and the names of all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in secret detention centers. At least fifty-three family members have died seeking the truth about their loved ones and, to this day, not a single case of enforced disappearances has been prosecuted.
In a press conference last weekend, a white-van driver spoke plainly of his experience abducting and torturing people during the armed conflict. Without flinching, he explained this was done under the authority of former defense minister and now freshly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He provided gruesome details of the torture campaign run by Gotabaya — at one particular site in Monaragala, victims’ organs were removed and flung into a nearby reservoir to be fed to crocodiles.
The government officials seated beside him displayed neither shock nor disgust. To them, the white-van driver was nothing but a traumatic reason for Tamils to vote for the comparatively more moderate candidate Sajith Premadasa. The need to investigate and prosecute the driver and the new president, at the very least, was not even a point of discussion.
This year, Sri Lanka’s presidential elections were primarily contested between Sri Lanka’s People’s Front’s (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the United National Party’s (UNP) Sajith Premadasa. Rajapaksa, the fourth brother in the family’s long-standing oligarchy in Sri Lanka, was the architect of Sri Lanka’s genocide against Tamils in 2009. In only April of this year, he was served two lawsuits in the United States on charges of torture. As the former defense minister during the end of the armed conflict, he ordered the military’s genocidal shelling of government-designated “safe zones,” killing 70,000–140,000 Tamil civilians, maiming another 25,000–30,000, and displacing at least 300,000.
Following the Easter Sunday bombings, in which three churches and three luxury hotels were targeted in attacks by militant Islamists that killed 259 people, Rajapaksa capitalized on the severe failure in state security that led to the worst terror attack this year. He gallantly announced his presidential bid post-attacks and built his campaign around being Sri Lanka’s strongman. His counterpart, Premadasa, was considerably the “lesser evil,” though he too ran on a platform of securitization and bolstering intelligence networks. Neither intended to address the issues of concern to Tamils, including enforced disappearances, military occupation, land grabs, and security sector reform.
In spite of all this, voter turnout in the Tamil-and Muslim-dominated northeast was at a record high last Saturday. Premadasa won over 70 percent of the vote in this region as a result of minority voters’ desperate attempt to thwart Rajapaksa’s victory.
Muslims, who faced a resurgence of ethnoreligious violence following the Easter Sunday bombings, also feared the consequences of a return to unbridled state-sanctioned Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In fact, evidence of such had already manifested on election day with the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence reporting 196 violations, including assault, intimidation, and threats largely by the SLPP party.
In Mannar, unidentified gunmen attacked buses transporting Muslim voters to the polls and even blockaded roads with trees to prevent buses from getting to the polls. Following the announcement of Rajapaksa’s win, Sri Lankan social media began filling with racist sentiments; an especially flagrant Facebook post reading: “Dear [Gotabaya] Sir, your second duty is to destroy those Tamils in the North and settle Sinhalese … we are with you.”
Many have drawn comparisons between the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections in attempts to understand how the Sri Lankan polity that once disempowered former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa in favor of the more moderate Maithripala Sirisena came to elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa only five years later. In this analysis, they cite a gradual polarization of the Sinhala south that credits Sri Lanka’s failing economy and growing poverty to its renewed ethnoreligious nationalism.
This fails to recognize the ferocity with which Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is protected by the state and the intensity with which it infiltrates its institutions and structures. The constitution itself places Buddhism as having the “first and foremost” place in the country, a testament to the island’s nationalist politics following independence. This analysis further ignores the decade of impunity following the end of the armed conflict that has enabled genocidaires to be treated as “war heroes” and elected to Sri Lanka’s highest office.
Immediately following Rajapaksa’s win, many Tamil activists shifted their social media profiles to private and scrambled to strengthen their security protocols. New army checkpoints appeared in the eastern province of Amparai. A Muslim-owned shop in Haputala was attacked. In Kegalle, Tamil residents were assaulted in their homes and their appliances were vandalized for supporting the “wrong” Sinhala Buddhist. A victim from the incident is recorded saying: “We placed a vote and earned a beating.”
It is now, after years of foot-dragging and preaching reconciliation, that the international community must take substantive steps to prioritize human rights defenders, civil society, and most importantly, victim-survivors — especially Tamils and Muslims — from persecution and violence. Foreign governments must explore alternative paths to justice such as universal jurisdiction for suspected perpetrators of war crimes and end bilateral military cooperation with Sri Lanka. They must interrogate the consequences of impunity and their own complicity in the election of a war criminal. Had a meaningful transitional justice process occurred in the decade following the armed conflict, it’s unlikely Sri Lanka would be where it is today.