Sri Lanka’s majoritarian politics amid COVID-19

Asia Politics World

Author: Neil DeVotta, Wake Forest University

Sri Lanka began 2020 with a newly elected president whose Sinhalese Buddhist supporters claimed would transform the country. Gotabaya Rajapaksa titled his November 2019 election manifesto Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, capturing his acolytes’ nationalist aspirations. The country ended the year, however, questioning Rajapaksa’s self-proclaimed technocratic credentials as the domineering president fails to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Leader of Sri Lanka People's Front party and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, wearing a protective mask, arrives at a campaign rally ahead of country's parliamentary elections in Ahungalla, Sri Lanka, 1 August 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte).

Leader of Sri Lanka People's Front party and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, wearing a protective mask, arrives at a campaign rally ahead of country's parliamentary elections in Ahungalla, Sri Lanka, 1 August 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte).

204 Sri Lankans officially died from COVID-19 in 2020 — perhaps an undercount, but the island clearly avoided mass deaths. For comparison, of America’s fifty states, only California and Texas exceed Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million people — yet all apart from the sparsely populated Vermont saw more COVID-19-related deaths than Sri Lanka. Similarly, the United Kingdom, with three times Sri Lanka’s population, saw around 73,000 people die from COVID-19 in 2020.

The island’s initial COVID-19 response was strikingly effective, burnishing Rajapaksa’s reputation even among those who did not vote for him. People pointed to the failures of developed countries and praised Sri Lanka’s more effective response. Pro-Rajapaksa media furthered this narrative by juxtaposing the government’s performance with the previous regime’s incompetence. The government’s effective initial response also legitimised ongoing militarisation, with Rajapaksa appointing numerous serving and retired military personnel to prominent bureaucratic roles. On 1 January, the government appointed a Major General in each of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts to superintend coronavirus measures, further expanding militarisation.

Halting the initial spread was one reason the President’s Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) won a thumping majority in the August parliamentary elections. In October, the SLPP and allies rammed through the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, reintroducing presidential powers enabling autocratic governance.

The push for the Twentieth Amendment continued even as COVID-19 clusters — one at a popular fish market and another at a large garment factory — exacerbated community spread. Prisons also became hotspots and a riot in one facility over COVID-19 measures saw eleven inmates killed.

Disregard for the warnings of medical experts was a major factor in the second wave. The government further discredited itself when the health minister and other politicians promoted quack remedies, particularly a syrup supposedly used since the time of Ravana — a protagonist in the Hindu epic Ramayana — that a man manufactured with a recipe he claimed to have received from the goddess Kali.

The pandemic has compounded socio-economic tensions rooted in ethnoreligious differences. While petty entrepreneurial rivalries, demographics, and the conspicuous piety of the Salafi-Wahabi Muslim community combined to roil non-Muslim sensibilities following the civil war, COVID-19 has allowed Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and their opportunistic political patrons to fan Islamophobia. Muslims were among Sri Lanka’s first COVID-19 cases, and demonisation of Muslims has continued as Islamic communities, which are concentrated in densely populated areas, are disproportionately affected by the virus.

The government’s policy of cremating COVID-19 victims may be contributing to the spread of the virus among Muslims, many of whom avoid hospitals for fear of being cremated in violation of Islamic tradition. The government’s stubborn refusal to accommodate Muslim sentiment has nothing to do with science, given that the World Health Organization endorses the burial of COVID-19 victims. It has more to do with a ‘schadenfreude nationalism’, wherein many among the majority take glee in seeing minorities tormented. The majority of Muslims voted against Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he ran — just as they did against his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 — and forcible cremation appears to be one way to teach the community a lesson. Reports claim that among those forcibly cremated are Muslims who died without testing positive for COVID-19.

The forced cremation of a 20-day-old baby in December led to fresh outrage and appeared to push the government to reconsider its policy. Despite the Supreme Court dismissing petitions against the practice and Buddhist clergy campaigning in support, other prominent Buddhist clerics appear to be providing the government cover to reverse its stance. Scattered protests due to the inability to access essentials during lockdown and the regime’s eroding popularity amid the pandemic’s fallout may be nudging these pro-Rajapaksa monks towards accommodating Muslims — and Christians too. Yet the cremation policy still remains unchanged.

The economy registered 16.3 per cent negative growth in the second quarter of 2020 and, despite slight gains in the third quarter, contracted again in the fourth quarter. With its main foreign currency-generating sectors decimated, Sri Lanka faces a balance of payments crisis made worse by the US$23 billion it needs to cough up between 2021–24 to finance debts. The rupee is also depreciating record levels, while around 500,000 Sri Lankans face extreme poverty. The crisis is worsened as the IMF baulks at providing emergency assistance and credit agencies downgrade Sri Lanka’s sovereign ratings.

The government dithered on accepting the US$480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, with nationalists claiming the United States would use it to undermine Sri Lankan sovereignty. This is despite a visit by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in October. In December, the United States withdrew the grant. Sri Lanka is a vital link in America’s geostrategic designs for the Indo-Pacific, and the Rajapaksa government’s aversion appears related to its pro-China leanings — which, in turn, will affect relations with India and China’s other geopolitical rivals. Indian concerns were clear when its External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited in early January 2021 and complained that China was actively involved in stymieing Indian investment and developmental projects.

Rajapaksa’s biggest challenge is to fix the economic woes COVID-19 has exacerbated. One might argue that the coronavirus has slowed the government’s consolidation of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism, and may push it in a more pluralist direction. Conversely, as economic conditions worsen and the regime’s popularity tanks, the President and his hyper-nationalist entourage may be tempted to whip up ethnoreligious mayhem to mask the political blowback from COVID-19.

Neil DeVotta is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2020 in review and the year ahead.