Sri Lanka’s rich past has endowed the country with a multi-ethnic and religious population. However, since the end of the civil war in 2009, tensions with the Muslim minority have arisen. Non-Buddhist groups are generally “otherized.” In the past two decades, the country has witnessed a growing trend of authoritarianism. This trend has occurred under democratically elected governments. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa have used the narrative of ethnocentric communalism extensively. A security-driven narrative has been used to win the votes of the Buddhist majority. Counter-populist groups have also emerged in Sri Lanka. The rhetoric of the “anti-political elite” brought Sirisena to office in 2015. He was voted out due to unfulfilled promises. The repeated need for “strongmen” like the Rajapaksas to save “the people” from the “threats” posed by “the other” has been the core drivers of populism in the country.
Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is an independent South Asian island nation-state lying off mainland India’s southeast coast in the Indian Ocean. The country’s history is rich. It had ties to the mainland subcontinent that dates back centuries. Its location meant the country was an important trading route for centuries, including as part of the ancient Silk Route. European powers—especially the Portuguese, Dutch, and British—influenced Sri Lanka by establishing maritime ports. The British were the only European country to successfully establish rule over all of Ceylon (in 1817). The country became a colony after the defeat and abdication of the ruling king of Kandy. The colonial period led to massive exports of spices from the country. It also established coffee plantations that were later replaced with tea plantations. Ceylon was a major exporter of natural rubber as well.
During the First World War (WWI), soldiers recruited from the region were attached to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). During the Second World War (WWII), Ceylon faced the Japanese threat. However, it was not formally occupied. Locals from the region took part in the war as part of the Allied Forces. Simultaneously, at home, an independence movement against the British gained momentum, and the country gained its independence in 1948. In 1972 the current name Sri Lanka was adopted.
The country’s inability to embrace diversity led to a civil war that lasted 26 years (1983–2009). The Buddhist Sinhala majority and the minority Sri Lankan Tamils (mostly Hindus) clashed in a bloody conflict that roiled most of the country. After 9/11, the country witnessed increased agitation against Muslim groups. Overall, Sri Lanka has done well on the human development indicators compared to the rest of South Asia. However, its human rights record remains very problematic. Years of civil war have severely affected the economy, governance structures, and democracy. Censorship, freedom of speech, and the blurred lines between the military and government are key issues.
Ethnic divides and tensions in Sri Lanka have fed into a nation-wide populism. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Śrī Laṁkā Nidahas Pakṣaya, SLFP) was founded in the 1950s. It has a center-left view rooted in Sinhalese nationalism (Buddhist majority of the country). The SLFP has a progressive outlook and promotes social justice; it was the first party in the world to be led by a woman (Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who took over in 1960). However, despite its progressivism, the party has pursued anti-Tamil policies. In the past, these activities included denying citizenship to a considerable number of Sri Lankan Tamils and deporting them to India. It has also failed to investigate ethnically motivated killings. Young Tamils were prevented from enrolling in higher education by university quotas (Carothers and O’Donohue, 2020).
By the 1980s, the systemic exclusion of the Tamil population had triggered massive agitation. From the 1970s, a militant separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the “Tamil Tigers,” became active in seeking an independent homeland for the Tamils. The conflict also had a religious dimension as the Tamil population is predominately Hindu, and the government is mainly Buddhist. Over two decades of fighting, a number of failed efforts were made to bring peace. This led to thousands of casualties on both sides. This conflict also hindered economic development. The war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. The decade after the war ended also saw mass human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military against the defeated group. Military attacks destroyed Tamil villages, while plundering was common; even the rape of dead female Tamil Tigers was frequently reported (Edirisuriya, 2017). While peace has been established, ethnic tensions still run high in the country.
During the period of economic uncertainty and fears of unending civil war before the peace was concluded in 2009 saw the rise of Sri Lanka’s prominent populist leader Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa. He served as Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015. At present, he is serving his second term as prime minister. A lawyer by profession, Mahinda Rajapaksa has served as part of the preliminary system since the 1970s. Thus, unlike most populist politicians, he did not come to power as a “political outsider.” He assumed office through a power grab after former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (Eksath Jāthika Pakshaya, UNP) had repeatedly failed to secure a ceasefire during the civil war. In the public eye, the UNP had failed in its promises to bring peace and stimulate economic recovery and development. Wickremesinghe was seen as part of the “business elite.” In such a political climate, Rajapaksa emerged as a “strongman” in a Sri Lanka mired in deep conflict (Abeyagoonasekera, 2016).
Rajapaksa comes from a small town. For this reason, he has generally been dismissed by elite politicians in Colombo as a “village idiot.” His political rivals have thus underestimated him. He gained support from the Sinhala-Buddhist community in a deeply divided society embroiled in conflict, primarily by selling himself as a “strongman” who could bring an end to the never-ending civil war. This also led to hopes of economic revival. He was able to portray the UNP’s efforts to bring peace as “trivial” in the face of the “terrorist” Tamils. Rajapaksa proposed a more confrontational solution to the issue (Goonewardena, 2020). Once elected, Rajapaksa unleashed the military against the Tamils. His aggressive pursuit ended the civil war in favor of the state. This came at the cost of massive human rights violations. Nevertheless, he positioned these policies as “necessary” to ensure the “safety” of “the people” (Dibbert, 2016).
During his time in office, the rhetoric perused was highly charged with Sinhala nationalism, whereby Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese were presented as “the people,” excluding the Tamil and Muslim populations, which felt isolated by being “otherized.” Rajapaksa was able to enlarge the “otherization” process to the Muslim population. When asked why Muslims were being targeted under his rule, he justified the behavior by arguing that Muslim communities had brought attacks on themselves: “What was in the background? Why were they attacked? …[A Sinhala-Buddhist] girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped [by a Muslim coworker]. Then naturally they [the girl’s community] will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion… There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background [like] that” (Gunasekara, 2017). He presented conspiracy theories that linked the Muslim population with Islamic State (IS). His imagination went as far as blaming the group for spreading HIV / AIDS by injecting oranges with the virus. In his two terms in office, he failed to condemn the actions of the Bodu Bala Sena (a far-right Buddhist terrorist group), which attacked Muslim communities during riots (Goonewardena, 2020).
Rajapaksa’s time in office grew increasingly autocratic and authoritarian. He tried to control media outlets that criticized his corruption-plagued neo-liberal reforms. In addition, government policies increasingly relied on loans with little thought of repayment (Shams, 2018). Today, Sri Lanka finds itself in a troubling debt crisis. At the time, Rajapaksa believed that the country’s ethnic divides were rooted in a lack of economic opportunity, which justified investment in “megaprojects.” His office was also involved in inflating economic figures to show “progress” and “development” of the country during his rule. His time in office was also marked by evidence of clientelism and nepotism (Goonewardena, 2020; Shah, 2020; Dibbert, 2016). Rajapakse also rewrote the constitution during his term in office, removing the two-term limit on the presidency and ensuring the office of president had more power to select public servants and judges (BBC, 2015).
During his second term in office, Rajapaksa was mired in corruption allegations. There was also alleged electoral tampering. Rajapaksa’s rhetoric of Sinhala nationalism faded. This saw Maithripala Sirisena and his UNP return to prominence in the political field. The discontent against the government brought a new wave of populism centered on “anti-corruption” slogans and targeted Rajapaksa’s economic policies and autocratic behavior. At the same time, Sirisena gave hope for a reconciliation with the Tamil and Muslim minorities who felt marginalized under Rajapaksa (BCC, 2015).
Sirisena’s 2015 electoral campaign was highly populist. It took advantage of the public’s resentment over the Rajapaksa family’s nepotism. The UNP foregrounded its claim that the country was under the control of “one family.” The party leadership also promised a quick and simple solution to the country’s problems in 100 days (Goonewardena, 2020; Abeyagoonasekera, 2016). A populist manifesto, “A Stable Country,” was published. Sirisena also promised to repeal the controversial eighteenth amendment to the constitution allowing presidents to serve multiple terms and use a wide array of powers. The UNP attracted rural votes by promises of loan forgiveness for farmers, reducing commodity prices of utilities such as fuel, increasing salaries of public employers, improving public budgetary commitments to the health and education sectors, and implementing a progressive taxation system (Francis, 2019). Sirisena reached out to the minorities as well. He promised an independent inquiry related to war crimes committed during the civil war. These factors led to a considerable increase in his popular support (Francis, 2019).
Through his populist appeals, Sirisena has sought to broaden the definition of “the people.” In his version of populism, “the people” incorporated anyone wronged and victimized in Sri Lanka. “The other” was anyone opposing him politically. The whole campaign focused on an anti-Rajapaksa movement. Once in power, Sirisena could not live up to his populist promises. He was only able to reverse the previously extended presidential powers, reimposing the two-term limit, and passing the Right to Information law (Francis, 2019).
In a surprise move, Sirisena removed Wickremesinghe from office and replaced him as prime minister with his former revival Mahinda Rajapaksa. To deflect criticism, severe media restrictions were imposed. Coverage of the protests was blacked out. Following a judicial investigation, Wickremesinghe was re-instated as prime minister, but faith was lost in Sirisena (Goonewardena, 2020). Moreover, Sirisena, who had won the election on an “anti-corruption” campaign against the “political elite,” was himself implicated in nepotism and corruption. He appointed family members to lead key public companies, and he was accused of corruption (Goonewardena, 2020). To divert attention from his digressions, he popularized a conspiracy that India’s intelligence agency was targeting him and Rajapaksa. This drew on anti-India sentiments, which run deep in the Sinhala population due to India’s early support for the Tamil Tigers (Srinivasan, 2018).
Sirisena’s promise of “good governance” and “people-centric” welfarism failed. During his term, Muslims were increasingly targeted by groups such as Bodu Bala Sena. Muslims were “otherized” as part of the greater Muslim “ummah.” Tamils were also seen as non-Sri Lankans and rather a part of the Indian Tamil ethnic group. Non-Sinhala were aliens or asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist). This increasingly hostile attitude has driven Tamil and Muslim youth to radicalism, thus producing a self-reinforcing logical of political conflict (Ramachandran, 2018). Following the Easter bombings in 2019, otherization intensified. The targets of the attacks were churches, luxury resorts, and the main airport. The mismanagement of security measures saw Sirisena accused of gross negligence, and he stepped down as president in late 2019 after declining to run for a second term in office. It is unclear if a home-grown Muslim group such as the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) or the antinational IS was responsible for the attacks. Nevertheless, these events have reinforced the apparent credibility of populist narratives in a climate of intensely partisan politics (BBC, 2020).
Before 2019, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Front (Śrī Laṃkā Podujana Peramuna, SLPP) was largely unknown. However, the party carried him to the presidency in 2019. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP are ideologically populist. Their economics is based on left-wing ideologies despite a social outlook that is markedly right-wing. Like his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has exploited fears among the Sinhalese majority to boost his electoral success (Fernando & Shah, 2020). He has successfully combined ethno-nationalism with a security state narrative. The Easter bombings lent immense credibility to this narrative. Gotabaya Rajapaksa depicted himself as a “hero” from the civil war era, a strongman who had led the country to “victory” against the Tamil “insurgents.” Now, the “strongman” is cast as being against Muslim radicals (Jayasuriya, 2019).
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pursued reckless neo-liberal policies. Quick economic fixes based on foreign debt have been justified as boosting the “welfare” and “development of the people.” However, it has only exacerbated Sri Lanka’s acute debt crises. Increasing worries about the use of force, violation of human rights, and suppression of freedom of speech are also present (Jayasuriya, 2019). Under conditions of increasing authoritarianism, he has muffled severe criticism. In an act of nepotism, he re-instated Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister in November 2019 (Fernando & Shah, 2020).
Sri Lanka is the heartland of Buddhism, a religious tradition that sits alongside various other religious groups and ethnicities residing on the island. The diversity is neither celebrated nor tolerated by the Sinhalese majority. Since its independence, the “otherization” of non-Sinhalese minorities has been systematically used by populists as a means to recruit the support of the Buddhist majority. The ethnic divide coupled with the enduring threats of terror have seen the Rajapaksas consistently returned to office. The populist brothers have used divides as “threats.” Their “strongmen” image is based on the alleged defense of “the people.” Assuming a crucial need for “the people,” their time in office has seen the ongoing misuse of power. This has led to the suppression of opposition and the curtailing of civil freedoms. While Sirisena’s version of pluralistic and reformist populism failed as an electoral prospect, populism is still the driving force of politics in Sri Lanka and remains an electoral vehicle for autocrats.
February 23, 2021
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