Many of Sri Lanka’s problems can be attributed to its battle against the separatist Tamil Tigers, including impoverishing the country in order to prosecute the brutal war. But Sri Lanka has long been moving away from a more broadly representative parliamentary form of government to an increasingly narrow and authoritarian presidential model.
Having been politically rewarded for a hard line approach that brought military victory, it is unlikely that President Rajapaksa will soften his approach to Sri Lanka’s continuing problems.
Despite having to contest elections, Rajapaksa had earlier said that democracy is a luxury that Sri Lanka could not afford, and his increasingly authoritarian presidential style has reflected that opinion. Rajapaksa’s supporters regard anyone who dares oppose him or question his policies as a traitor to the country.
As a result, when former army chief General Sarath Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa for the presidency, the man who actually led the victory over the Tamil Tigers was branded as a traitor and is now seeking to flee Sri Lanka for his personal safety.
Fonseka has been vilified in the rabidly pro-government media, and more independent, primarily on-line media outlets have been blocked. This follows the exodus of many of the country’s leading journalists in 2009, and the murder of others, among Sri Lanka’s now infamous litany of human rights abuses and wider allegations of war crimes.
Sinhalese chauvinism has been on the rise for years and has increasingly found little space to accommodate non-Sinhalese, other than as barely tolerated outsiders. Rajapaksa has only vaguely articulated inclusion for Sri Lanka’s 2.5 million Tamil minority and few Tamils hold any hope of meaningful inclusion. Rajapaksa has said that any resolution of the ‘Tamil question’ will be determined internally and that external advice, much less mediation, is not welcome.
In the period since Rajapaksa’s initial election in 2005, Sri Lanka has moved away from its traditional but increasingly critical Western allies and trading partners. Instead, Sri Lanka’s closest allies are now China, Iran and Burma.
Sri Lanka’s move towards China is of concern given China’s long-standing desire to establish a strategic base in the Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka’s deep water port at Trincomalee. China is also helping to build a port in Rajapaksa’s hometown of Hambantota.
China’s closeness to the Rajapaksa administration is not just of concern to the West, but particularly to India, which is divided from Sri Lanka by just 64 kilometres of the Palk Straits.
Both India and the West hoped that General Fonseka would have won the election, despite claims that he should be charged with war crimes. Fonseka had promised closer cooperation with the West and to re-balance Sri Lanka’s relationship with India. But this was not to be.
As chief of the army that crushed the Tamil Tigers, Fonseka was disliked by most Tamils who, despite being reluctantly endorsed by some Tamil political leaders, overwhelmingly refused to vote. Had all Tamils able to vote supported Fonseka, the election outcome would have been much closer. But many Tamils had not been able to register to vote following their wholesale displacement last year, so it is unlikely even this would have been enough to secure Fonseka’s victory against an increasingly united Sinhalese majority.
Rajapaka’s commitment to building a massive arsenal and marshalling Sri Lanka’s military for total war ensured victory over the Tamil Tigers. However, he now faces the problem of rebuilding a ruined economy and a country deeply divided.
Despite economic growth of six per cent in 2009, Sri Lanka’s external debt had surpassed its annual economic output and inflation was running at close to 25 per cent. Sri Lanka’s poor, too, do not look like benefiting from proposed economic policies, although the reallocation of Tamil lands to landless Sinhalese – a policy similar to that of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe’s - will help reinforce the president’s support base.
The real problem, though, will be how Rajapaksa deals with the Tamil minority. After decades of structural alienation, a genuine political solution would include resettlement of displaced Tamils in their original homes and a degree of political autonomy for Tamil areas.
It would also include a return to a free media, a more participatory approach to governing and a decentralisation of political power to again give Sri Lanka’s parliament meaningful political authority. None of this is likely, however, from Sri Lanka’s triumphalist president.
Sri Lanka’s Tamils will continue to feel outcasts in their own land, and will continue to try to flee, or perhaps again to fight. Sri Lanka’s presidential election is over, but the problems that led to its long civil war continue.