On November 17, 2019, the former defence secretary of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential elections with 52.5% vote. While his rival, Sajith Premadasa from United National Party (UNP), came second in the presidential race with 43.8% vote. The Sinhalese majority from south, central and western part of Sri Lanka voted for Rajapaksa, while Premadasa received support from the north and the east. The election taken place seven months after deadly church bombings saw Christian community from Western Sri Lanka voted in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Muslims and Tamil community largely supported the UNP presidential candidate along with their respective communal parties.
Background: The History, Culture and the Conflict
The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa supported by Sinhalese majority, have raised concerns among the minority Muslims and Tamils regarding the increase in communal attacks from Buddhist extremists, rise in Islamophobia and resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism. Sri Lanka has four predominant ethnoreligious groups- Buddhist (majority Sinhalese), Hindu Tamils (includes both Sri Lankan and Indian origin Tamil populace), Muslims (majority Sri Lankan Moors) and Christians (a mixed group of Sinhalese and Tamil). The majority Sinhalese community has had historical animosity with Muslims and Tamils, that continues to date. The Tamil’s demand for a separate state based on their identity that led to Sri Lankan civil war was ended in 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as defence secretary. On the other hand, Muslims faced with forced displacement and attacks from LTTE cadres, supported the government.
Meanwhile, a shift took place within the Sri Lankan Muslim community, that are predominantly Sunni, towards conservative Islamic practices contrary to their Tamil cultural roots. After a brief thaw post-2009 civil war, they began facing communal attacks from Buddhist Sinhalese extremists. The gradual change within the community’s religious practices, the domestic as well as the concurrent geopolitical developments, lead to church bombings in April 2019. The deadly event caused polarization both within the majority Sinhalese and the minority Christian community, to vote in favour of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party in the 2019 presidential elections. The UNP lead opposition with inter-party differences lost popularity among Sinhalese due to its failure to prevent the terrorist attack.
The return of Rajapaksa clan at the helm of Sri Lankan political affairs will cause concern in India and the wider Indian Ocean region. The increase in Chinese investments in the strategic ports of Hambantota and Colombo and the visits by People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels and submarines to Sri Lankan ports raised concerns in India over the spread of Chinese influence in her backyard. Despite close cooperation between India and Sri Lanka in ending long-drawn civil war with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the differences over Tamil’s political resolution, and India’s vote against Sri Lanka at United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), pushed latter to seek political and financial support from China and Russia.
Sri Lankan Politics and the Rise of Islamic Terrorism: Consequences on Regional Security
The cyclic change in the Sri Lankan politics post-2009 civil war from gradual decline to the revival of Sinhalese nationalism lead to the return of Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Sri Lankan political scene. The government provided by the UNP-Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition failed to provide required socio-political and economic stability to the majority Sinhalese and minority communities. Frequent party in-fighting and the continuation of communal violence between Sinhalese and Muslims sent a mixed message to both the communities. While Sinhalese were concerned about the political instability resulting in economic ordeals, Muslim and Tamil minorities saw it as lack of government’s apathy. The anti-Rajapaksa vote that had brought UNP-SLFP coalition government to power in 2015 failed to secure substantial seats in the local council elections of 2018. The delay in the conduct of local elections in Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka and the communal attacks on minorities led to the divergence of minority votes towards sectarian parties like Elam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and Akila Ilankai Tamil Congress (AITC). In the local elections, the gradual consolidation of Sinhalese votes leads to the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) into the Sri Lankan politics. Further strengthening of Sinhalese majority votes triggered by April 2019 Church bombings and shift of minority Christian votes towards Gotabaya Rajapaksa, made him won presidential elections.
The deadly suicide bombings orchestrated by Sri Lanka based National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) that killed over 250 people was the first such incident in a decade since the end of Civil war. The event marks the emergence of Islamic terrorism in the country provoked by the communal violence against the minority Muslim community and the geopolitical developments such as killings of Muslims by a white Christian extremist in New Zealand. NTJ with its sworn allegiance to Islamic State not only received funds from the Middle East, Malaysia and India but also adopted operational practices from suicide bombings in Indonesia. While the organization and its networks are of concern to India, it has the potential to trigger communal violence between majority and minority communities in Sri Lanka similar to communal riots that took place in March 2018 and May 2019.
In the past, the bilateral differences during the Sri Lankan civil war and at United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) between Sri Lanka and India prompted a shift of Mahinda Rajapaksa regime towards China. While the diplomatic reach-outs over the years have bridged the differences between Rajapaksa brothers and the Indian leadership, the fundamental aspects of the bilateral relationship remain unsolved. The post-war economic development has been an issue which remains alive despite a change of political direction in Sri Lanka. In the absence of substantial financial assistance by India and the western countries through strategic investments in key development projects, China will continue to exert its political and economic influence in the South Asian country.
Why Sri Lanka Matters?
The strategic location of Sri Lanka along the major sea lane connecting oil-rich Gulf countries with the Asia-Pacific is vital to the security of the South Asian region and the wider Indian Ocean region. The expansion of Chinese economic investments under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across strategic ports in the country and the presence of PLAN naval submarines in the Indian ocean on the pretext of naval exercise, port calls and anti-piracy escort missions, have not only caused concern in India, but also among the navies of western countries operating in the region.
The political and socio-economic stability of Sri Lanka is vital to the security of India, as it is located close to Southern India and has a substantial Tamil diaspora with shared history, conflict and culture. Moreover, the rise of Islamic terrorism in the country and the link between Sri Lankan terrorist organizations with the terrorist modules operating in the Southern state of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have potential to cause the social and geopolitical instability.
The rise of Sinhalese nationalism, the shift of Christian minority vote, the emergence of Islamic terrorism, and the increase in communal violence against minorities have created multiple security challenges for Sri Lanka, with repercussions for the regional security. The continuation of sectarian violence and government apathy will deepen conservatism and radicalization among Sri Lankan Muslim youths and their turn towards the use of violence, carrying forward the fight for Islamic state beyond national borders. The economic and political stability remains an issue and in the absence of alternatives, the economic influence of China will continue.