Having swept to power in a landslide victory in late 2019, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wasted no time declaring unequivocally that his would be a Sinhalese ethno-nationalist state. He chose to be inaugurated at the island’s ancient Buddhist capital, Anuradhapura, the military and Buddhist clergy in heavy attendance.
In the shade of the grand Ruwanwelisaya stupa, built by a legendary Sinhalese conquerer who had vanquished a Tamil to ‘unite’ the island, Mr. Rajapaksa said this in the first three minutes of his address: “We knew from the outset that this country’s Sinhalese population… primarily contributed to this victory. I knew that I could win the presidency through Sinhalese votes alone. I asked the Tamil and Muslim populations to share in that victory. But I did not receive the response I anticipated.”
Less than three years later, Mr. Rajapaksa is as unpopular a head of state as has ever held office in Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history. He rode to power on a wave of Islamophobia that the Rajapaksa family’s own proxies had helped magnify after the 2019 Easter Attacks. But there are strong signals now that in the course of their vehement turning against the Rajapaksas over the past 18 months, even the Sinhalese voters who so gleefully ushered them in have awoken to the treachery embedded within majoritarian politics.
There is more understanding than ever that the state brutality Sinhalese have often cheered when minorities were in the crosshairs may readily be unleashed upon them too. And that when majoritarian politicians are cornered, no community is immune to their violent disdain. This will ring particularly true this week, after a protester demanding access to fuel was gunned down and killed by police in the inland town of Rambukkana. (This is not a new lesson for the Sinhalese. A lethal quelling of a protest in the town of Rathupaswala had also helped turn public opinion against Mr. Gotabaya’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013. The difference is, that violence had not come in the context of a national uprising.)
For now, the protest movement in the south has linked arms with minorities only symbolically. But less than three years after Muslim businesses were being boycotted by Sinhalese, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of this signalling. At Colombo’s Galle Face — the epicentre of Sri Lanka’s weeks-long ‘aragalaya’ (struggle) — Muslims have broken their fast surrounded by a mostly Sinhalese crowd every evening. The daily torrent of photographs and videos from the protests have shown Catholic nuns and priests sharing words and space with Buddhist monks, men in topi, women in hijabs. The signs and placards at protest sites have been in Tamil, as well as Sinhala and English. This week, the national anthem was sung in Tamil, in spite of complaints from a Buddhist monk at the protest, who was asked by the group to quiet down and leave. It had been the President who stopped the Tamil version of the national anthem from being sung at Independence Day celebrations.
Far beyond Colombo, even in the deep south — historically the most Sinhalese-Buddhist of Sri Lanka’s provinces — younger generations appear to have begun to recognise the monster they have fed. Protests outside the major urban centres have focused more fiercely on immediate economic relief, rather than the broad political changes demanded in Colombo. But those movements have not been without their intersectional moments, if only because it is clear that Muslims (few Tamils live in the deep south) have had their livelihoods devastated by the economic crisis, same as everyone else.
So where does this sudden upwelling of multi-ethnic, multi-religious solidarity go? There are no obvious direct political routes from this popular sentiment to pluralistic political change. What is clear, however, is that having once voted the Rajapaksas out in 2015 for their perceived corruption, their pillaging of the rule of law, and their ‘pawul paalanaya (family rule), the Sinhalese electorate is kicking itself for reinstalling them.
That regret has inspired some introspection; they have never been more teachable, or more primed to accept change. Sinhalese politicians have begun to take notice. Sajith Premadasa, the primary opposition figure since 2019, had for the first two years essentially played just a milder version of the Sinhalese-nationalist game the Rajapaksas were running. In recent months, as the public appetite has changed, so too his politics. Mr. Premadasa has become more unabashedly supportive of minority causes. In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, politicians follow as well as lead. And right now, the people are attempting to take the state by the collar.
This, more than any moment in the past 40 years, is the south’s opportunity to hold out a hand to Sri Lanka’s minorities. Their chance to batter the walls of Sinhalese ethno-nationalism, which they had helped raise, which Tamils railed against for many decades, and which have borne down on Muslims in the 21st century.
Partly out of political pragmatism, moderate Tamils and Muslims have shown an eagerness to partake in and ‘support’ the protests. But this is the south’s show. Of that there is no doubt.
Take stock of appalling ideologies
If Sri Lanka is to emerge a more pluralistic state from this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, the Sinhalese must take stock of the appalling ideologies they have ushered into the highest offices, and engage in deeply distressing conversations — about the clergy’s divisive role in politics, about curtailing the ‘foremost place’ the constitution affords Buddhism, among many others. Perhaps, though this is ambitious, there can even be a rethinking of the unitary nature of the state, the platform upon which Sri Lanka’s 26-year Civil War was waged.
The gestures are a start. They may be enough for now. But they will mean little if they do not build to systemic change.
Andrew Fidel Fernando, a Colombo-based journalist, is the author of ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’