What happens if Rajapaksa heads Sri Lanka’s government?

Almost a decade ago, the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian ocean brought to a brutal end a conflict that claimed thousands of lives.

Since then, history seems to have come full circle. On October 26, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena made a shock decision to fire the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and appoint former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in that role. He also unilaterally suspended Parliament and the cabinet. Many analysts and experts fear a chilling revival of the former abusive regime.

Rajapaksa’s administration was accused of serious rights violations during the final stages of the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It is a matter of record that the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately attacked civilians, hospitals and schools, executed prisoners and interned thousands of Tamils with widespread use of torture and sexual violence. Thousands of Tamils and other minorities with links to the Tigers were also forcibly disappeared.

Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa in 2015 on a broad mandate of reform which included good governance and a process towards transitional justice for crimes committed by all parties. However, the initial good relations between Sirisena and his coalition partner Wickremasinghe soon soured into three years of bickering and deep distrust with very little progress made on justice and accountability issues.

Rajapaksa’s appointment to the prime minister’s seat is not final, as the Sri Lankan High Court has to rule on the constitutionality of the presidential decision. But if its ruling is in favour of the sacking of Wickremasinghe and the former president comes back as prime minister, what does this mean for the future of the country?

The death of post-conflict justice agenda

Rajapaksa’s return would certainly mean the reversal of the few gains that have been made on transitional justice and accountability. It would also signal the end of a joint process towards transitional justice at the Human Rights Council, which began with a landmark UN resolution in 2015.

This resolution led to the creation of an Office of Missing Persons which gave hope to those desperately seeking information on loved ones, but it never really got off the ground. The resolution also called for a hybrid court involving international judges that would investigate all parties to the conflict. But it lost momentum and the hybrid court was soon relayed into a call for domestic processes only.

In addition, other measures, such as security sector reform never happened and Sri Lanka continues to have emergency laws and regulations which foster a legal framework for violations.  

In the face of competing conflicts, international steam for the UN process was already fading fast but Rajapaksa’s return will certainly sound the death knell for these initiatives. Rajapaksa presided over a government which brutally ended decades of conflict in the country. Coupled with the lack of progress on national efforts for reconciliation within an unchanged repressive framework, this essentially marks the end of any real justice or accountability for the crimes that took place.

Impact on Tamils and Muslim minorities

The profile and role of militant Buddhist groups also pose additional challenges. Rajapaksa is a popular figure among Sinhalese Buddhists and their political influence came to the fore under his leadership from 2012 to 2014. Through using traditional and social media, their influence has continued to grow.

More worryingly, there has been a recent increase in attacks against Muslims by Buddhist militants. Radicalised Buddhist groups have continued to incite violence against Muslim communities and there has been almost no accountability for the harm done. A return to Rajapaksa could see further communal tensions or violence. In all probability, Rajapaksa will continue to court hardline Buddhists to gain support in Parliament and outside.

For a beleaguered Tamil population in the north and east of the country, the concern will be that history could repeat itself with the threat of further discrimination and violence looming. With no real accountability processes for previous crimes committed, Rajapaksa’s return could see Tamil activists and perceived dissidents targeted once again.

Relations with India and China

The domestic economy is facing several related challenges including sluggish growth, variable foreign investment flows, high external debt and pressures on the Sri Lankan rupee. A prolonged political crisis could deter further foreign investment, raise sovereign borrowing costs, impact debt servicing capacity and negatively impact growth. 

Wickremasinghe had moved away from Rajapaksa’s reliance on Chinese capital to service Sri Lankan debt and tried to find a better balance between engaging with China and India as two dominant powers in the region. However, given the pressures on the Sri Lankan economy, it is unclear whether the return of Rajapaksa will also mean a return to the former cosy relationship with China.

Beijing, for its part, has been insistent that it is “observing” the ongoing situation and reiterating that it sees the turmoil as an “internal issue”. But it is quite telling that the Chinese ambassador has already met Rajapaksa and Wickremasinghe, referring to the former as the “new prime minister”.

India, on the other hand, is already wary of Chinese influence returning to Sri Lanka. Reportedly, Rajapaksa sent out feelers to Indian officials over the past few days but it is likely they will continue to play their cards close to their chest. However, should Rajapaksa prevail, it will take more than a few meetings to get Indian officials on his side. New Delhi will remain concerned about his close links to China.  

However events unfold in the coming weeks, one thing is for sure: a Rajapaksa’s premiership risks plunging the country back into economic turmoil and potential violence. Sri Lanka is one of South Asia’s oldest democracies, and never before has it so blatantly disrespected its own constitutional norms. As Parliament is set to reconvene in a few days, there is an urgent need to ensure that the democratic processes prevail. Political gains should never be pursued at the cost of democracy. The risks are far too high.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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