Sri Lankan Democracy: Celebrations and Tragedies


Street scene, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Credit: tbz.foto via Flickr


As of today, Sri Lanka has a new government. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s agenda of liberalism, good governance and peaceful co-existence prevailed. His main rival, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (November 2005 - January 2015), who first won the war over Tamil separatism and then developed increasingly authoritarian tendencies, conceded defeat.

Long live democracy, we might think. The electorate has disposed of a despot that some international players – including the Australian government – were all too willing to play ball with. It had democratic checks and balances reinstated. And a majority of the multi-ethnic island turned its back on ethno-nationalism. Who would have thought one year ago? The Rajapaksa government was firmly in power, passing draconian laws, silencing critical voices and declaring human rights talk a taboo. The “demos” has stood up against majoritarian rule and authoritarian tendencies. The democratic architecture has succeeded in keeping that transition within bounds. And despite the high stakes, Monday’s elections passed without any major incidents. Democracy has prevailed!

[T]he central tragedy of Sri Lanka’s democracy remains in place: its inability to address the ethnic minority issue

Unresolved ethnic conflict

This is all good news. But at the same time, the central tragedy of Sri Lanka’s democracy remains in place: its inability to address the ethnic minority issue. Electoral competition on the multi-ethnic island fanned the flames of Sinhala nationalism and Tamil separatism in the decades after the 1948 independence. And once ethnic violence had escalated in the 1980s, democratic dynamics prevented political leaders from taking the bold steps required to rigorously address minority grievances.

This is unlikely to change under the current circumstances. This week’s election resulted in a hung parliament with two staunchly opposed alliances and no kingmakers that were able and willing to tip the balance. Wickremesinghe managed to attract sufficient cross-overs to piece together a rainbow coalition government. His reform plans are ambitious, but the prospects for resolving the minority issue are dire.

The people have spoken, but what did they really say?

While Sri Lanka now has a fresh and ambitious government with a majority in parliament, the political underpinnings are rather fractured. First of all, despite the humiliating defeat of Rajapaksa during the presidential polls of January this year and major changes that his successor Maithripala Sirisena has implemented since, Rajapaksa retained his popularity among big parts of the Sinhala electorate.

More importantly, the newly inaugurated government comprised a coalition of rather unlikely bedfellows. Wickremesinghe’s alliance comprises rival Sinhala politicians from both left and right of centre, as well as Muslim MPs and the nationalist Buddhist monk party: Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The main proponent of the Tamils (the Tamil National Alliance, TNA) has presented itself as an ally too, though they remain out of government. The voice of the electorate does not provide Wickremesinghe’s government with a crystal clear mandate; it is more of a cacophony.

The minority question

Both President Sirisena (in January) and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (now) owe their electoral victories to the ethnic minorities. Neither secured a majority among the Sinhala parts of the electorate. They are therefore under some pressure to address minority grievances, but doing this places their patriotic credentials at risk. Any proposal that smacks of dividing the country would cause Sinhala nationalists to cry out that the government is selling out the hard won military triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of May 2009.

While the electoral manifesto is mute on any major state reform, there has been talk of wooing the Tamil separatists with increased regional autonomy. This would involve giving the regions more power and making them larger, thus enabling a form of autonomy that resembles the northeastern “Tamil homeland”.

For the Muslims – Sri Lanka’s other main ethnic minority – this is not an attractive option. It would divide their dispersed population over Sinhala and Tamil dominated regions. And several of Wickremesinghe’s government partners would oppose such reform point blank.

The best the government can hope for seems to be a compromise that focuses on rights rather than territory. This would comprise addressing minority grievances within the present set up of provincial councils. But it is unlikely that the Tamil leadership would ultimately settle for this.

Transitional justice

Alleged war crimes committed against civilians during the months running up to the defeat of the Tamil insurgents in 2009 continue to be a diplomatic hot potato. The government was let off the hook after the January Presidential elections. But the pressure from the United Nations Human Rights Council will soon start mounting again.

The Wickremesinghe government will seek to strengthen its ties with India and the West, both of which have been advocating action on the human rights front (Australia being an exception). However, consenting to a full-fledged international investigation into war crimes opens up a can of worms for the Wickremesinghe government, and will provoke a fierce nationalist response. On paper, the middle ground is not hard to find: a credible domestic mechanism for transitional justice with some international safeguards. However, in practice, it may prove very challenging to navigate the political forces around such a mechanism.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has shown this week that it can save the island from the clutches of authoritarianism and power abuse. But the outlook with regard to the Gordian knot of resolving ethnic antagonism under democratic rule leaves less room for optimism.


Bart Klem

The University of Melbourne

Sri Lanka
Published Date
August 19, 2015