The return of Mahinda Rajapaksa points to another era of Sri Lankan authoritarianism
The return of Mahinda Rajapaksa points to another era of Sri Lankan authoritarianism

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election was held on 5 August, 75 percent of the country’s 16 million voters casting ballots. War criminal former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) to a decisive victory, winning 145 of the legislature’s 225 seats—five seats short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. Rajapaksa is expected to form an alliance with another party to secure the numbers needed to expand the powers of the current president, Mahinda’s brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was elected last year.

The United National Party (UNP), led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, didn’t win a single seat and managed to gain representation only through a national list. Peace—People’s Power, a breakaway faction from the UNP headed by Sajith Premadasa, came second with 54 seats. The People’s Liberation Front, which calls itself a Marxist party, managed to win only three seats, down from six at the last election.

The election campaign again proved that Sri Lanka’s politics is centred on absolute entitlement. Ever since British colonial rulers departed, leaving the island with a constitution that has been used by the majority Sinhala population to wage a genocidal assault on the Tamil population, mainstream political parties have reinforced the old belief that the whole island and all its assets and resources belong to the Sinhala Buddhist population. During the campaign, Mahinda, who is yet to face justice for his premeditated annihilation of at least 70,000 Tamil civilians in 2009, openly attacked Muslims and Tamils and reassured the Maha Sangha, the Buddhist peak body, that he will not allow the privileged position of Buddhism to be undermined.

Mahinda was president from 2005 to 2015. War crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances of critics, attacks on journalists and land grabbing were defining elements of his rule. During this period he was accused of corruption and nepotism, his family members controlling a majority of key ministerial posts. There were shocking allegations that Rajapaksa was skimming up to 50 percent in private commissions from multimillion-dollar infrastructure deals with China, and had hundreds of relatives and friends siphoning millions from public funds. His family’s wealth reportedly grew by US$800 million when he signed off on key development projects.

He was defeated by his former ally and cabinet minister Maithripala Sirisena, who was backed by Western countries and won the election with the support of Tamils and Muslims. Last year, Mahinda’s younger brother Gotabhaya was the favoured candidate of hardline Sinhala nationalists and won the support of the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala population in the south. Last week’s election results mean Sri Lanka may now fall under another authoritarian era in which the Rajapaksa family cements its rule on the island for generations to come.

In the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the island, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) suffered losses, reducing its parliamentary representation from sixteen to ten. The Tamil National People’s Front, led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who left the TNA in 2010 in protest over its relationship with Western governments, won two seats for the first time. And the newly formed Tamil People’s National Alliance, led by former Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, won one seat. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party and the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (Tamil Peoples Liberation Tigers, founded as a collaborationist splinter from the Tamil Tigers in 2004), which are allied with Rajapaksa’s SLPP, also gained representation, including the election of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, who is currently in prison for his involvement in the assassination of former TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham.

The TNA, which is a coalition of Tamil nationalist parties, is facing a split after its election losses. Prior to the election, there were accusations of corruption and allegations that the alliance was damping the Tamil national struggle to serve the interests of Western countries. Tamil parties that challenged the TNA’s dominance used the regional politics of nationalism and religion to win support. The outcome is the most divided election results we have witnessed in the north and east. Eleven years after the military defeat of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there is no leadership, and people are sick of the nationalist parties with their bankrupt politics.

Sri Lankan society today is weighed down by more than 70 years of Sinhala chauvinist politics. The only way forward is for all oppressed groups on the island to understand each other’s plight and unite in struggle. The oppression of Plantation Tamils can’t be understood without an understanding of the oppression of Eelam Tamils. The oppression of Muslims can’t be understood without an understanding of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The oppressed groups have a complex relationship but, ultimately, the working class—made up of all the exploited and oppressed on the island—has the power to challenge the system that has created so much suffering on the island while making only a few families incredibly rich.

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