Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2964

Sri Lanka Tamils Disappointment could Reflect in 2020 Polls: Whither Gotabhaya?

By K.T.Rajasingham & Daya Gamage – An Asian Tribune Discourse
Colombo & Washington, D.C. 15 April (

Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority Sinhalese Buddhist calls her Pattini while this South Asian nation’s Tamil Hindu minority name her Kannaki. For most part, neither of the two communities knows that the other reveres this Goddess under a different name. But both the Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu beliefs are deeply syncretic, and point toward a shared history and tradition. She is considered the patron goddess of fertility and health – particularly against ill-health.

Yet the nation is engulfed in nationalist fervor in both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. It was so during the separatist war launched by the Tamil Tigers, and thereafter since the defeat of the outfit in May 2009.

Since the war concluded, Tamil nationalism seemed have taken an upward turn as the Tamil issues and associated grievances failed to get adequate attention as they were interlocked with LTTE terrorism. The Sinhalese nationalism that took different turns in the independent history of Sri Lanka seemed to have hardened.

Both undoubtedly will be reflected in the next presidential elections scheduled for somewhere in early 2020. For the candidate that represents the incumbent administration, the failures to lead the path toward ethnic reconciliation since its inauguration in February 2015could pay a price. While the opposition candidate from the ‘populist-nationalist’ movement led by the Rajapaksas, whose Sinhalese nationalism is well rooted among a majority of the Sinhalese – as amply reflected at the February 2018 nation-wide local government polls – could further divide the two ethnic communities – a further hardening of Sinhalese nationalism and Tamil nationalism that this South Asian nation cannot further consume since the bitter end of the 26-year war which threatened national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As a political commentator recently said that Sri Lanka’s roots of the insurgency, however, are more complex, including a weakness inherent in democracies in many countries, including the U.S.—the temptation to exploit nationalism, ethnicity, race, and tribal identities for electoral gain. This was a temptation to which both Sinhalese and Tamil leaders succumbed in a competition for power and public resources. This scenario could emerge at the next presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the opposition leader in the legislature, is undoubtedly popular among the Sinhalese masses, and his sponsored candidate at the next presidential election – widely expected to be his younger brother former defense secretary who led the Eelam War IV Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – is yet to penetrate the minority Tamil and Muslim electorate.

The Sri Lanka’s demography is very interesting: More Tamils live among the Sinhalese than ever before in the history of the Sri Lankan nation. Tamils in significant numbers left the north and east to settle in the south; they purchase houses and land in Sinhalese-majority areas mostly in the suburban areas more close to rural towns.

In 1981, at the time the LTTE commenced its armed insurrection, 608,144 or 32.8% of Tamils lived outside the northern and eastern provinces. In 2001, approximately 736,480 Tamils lived outside those two provinces. A conservative estimate since the December 2004 was that close to 40% of minority Tamils were domiciled among the Sinhalese outside the two provinces. The government’s Department of Census and Statistics for 2014 gives 54% Tamils living outside north and east. In the capital of Colombo within the city limits and surrounding areas alone the Tamil community is estimated at 30% of the total population of the area.

In the Eastern Province: In the District of Trincomalee, all three ethnic communities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – are equally divided. In the District of Ampara, the Tamil population is approximately 20%, the rest equally divided among the other two. In the District of Batticaloa, the Tamils make 80%.

The Rajapaksa-candidature needs to take note of this demographic formation that will play a significant role at the 2020 presidential election. The distancing of the minority community, which did not totally approve of LTTE violence and separatist campaign and who were skeptical of the outfit’s outlook toward Sri Lankan polity, from the Rajapaksa victory were seen when the administration held ‘victory rallies’ throughout the Sinhalese-majority districts. The ‘triumphalism’ hit the psychology of the Tamils who questioned themselves “did we lose?”

President Rajapaksa never believed that the war could have been won by political accommodation and good-faith negotiations. What he believed in was: overwhelming force is preferable to underwhelming force.

The Rajapaksa approach deemphasized the need for winning hearts and minds and underscored the need for applying coercion and a monopolization on the use of force.

This scenario, even after eleven years in 2020, could reflect in a Rajapaksa candidacy. The Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podijana Peramuna (SLPP) polled an impressive 40% at the February 2018 nation-wide local government elections. However, the Sri Lankan president is elected using a form of ‘instant-runoff voting’. Votes can rank up to three candidates, and if no candidate wins a majority (50%) in the first round of voting, second and third preferences from ballots whose first preference candidate has been eliminated are used to determine the winner.

Here’s where the minority votes count. Nevertheless, a candidate with nationalist platform, as the Rajapaksas are widely known, could capture the presidency as was seen in the United States in the November 2016 presidential election in which Donald Trump won on a nationalist platform with fewer or no minority votes. Yet the demographic pattern noted above could play a significant role at the 2020 presidential election in Sri Lanka.

President Rajapaksa and his defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s undertaking to militarily combat terrorism underscored it’s serious desire to protect the nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty made the upholding of rule of law and democratic institutions a secondary matter; at the conclusion of the war in May 2009, until his defeat at the February 2015 polls, no meaningful measures were taken to address the root cause that led to the northern insurrection, and undertake the most needed ethnic reconciliation thereafter.

In an interview with one of the authors of this Asian Tribune report, in 2007, President Rajapaksa asked “What does the West want—to treat LTTE terrorists as freedom fighters?” The president went on to assert that “The West is of the opinion that if the Tamil Tigers are militarily defeated, our government will abandon the search for a political solution to the nation’s problem. That will not happen.”

The alienation of the minority Tamils from the Sri Lanka polity was seen during the rest of the Rajapaksa reign. These factors could play a major role at the next presidential election in Sri Lanka, and both candidates – from the incumbent administration and the opposition – could get succumbed to the Tamil nationalist voice with the Sinhalese nationalism further alienating the minority Tamils, and even the Muslims.

Two persons in Washington, one a policymaker and another a lawmaker in Capitol Hill, in conversation with one of the writers of this report expressed that the return of the Rajapaksas could reignite Tamil fears and could invigorate more extremist Tamil leaders—a dangerous phenomenon, both said, which, in a vicious downward cycle, would be used by some Sinhalese Buddhist politicians to justify extremist anti-minority policies.

Nationalism can bring different results: It can bring electoral victories, as was seen in the United States at the last presidential election, in the meantime could invigorate extremism of both sides of the isle.

As noted at the outset of this discourse, beliefs of the Sinhalese and the Tamils are very much deeply syncretic in a shared history and tradition in the nation of Sri Lanka. Let this Asian Tribune discourse help to focus on it.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lanka Tamils Disappointment could Reflect in 2020 Polls: Whither Gotabhaya?
diconary view
Share this