Sri Lanka's Tamils fear bloody return of 'Lord of the Rings' Mahinda Rajapaksa
On Galle Road, just a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean, the smell of burning incense and sound of chanting drift on to the street from the Kathiresan Temple, a rising structure adorned with Hindu iconography and lotus flowers.
Located in the Colombo district of Bambalapitiya, the holy site is devoted to Murugan, the ancient Hindu god of war who grew up to destroy evil spirits.
For the members of the Tamil minority who predominate in this area of the Sri Lankan capital, they fear another old demon of war who has returned to haunt them: Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Mr Rajapaksa is the nationalist strongman who crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that sought a federal state for Tamils, ending the civil war in 2009 in a brutal campaign aided by his brother, Gotabhaya, then defence minister. The United Nations says it left tens of thousands dead, wounded and missing.
The military under Mr Rajapaksa seized Tamil land in northern and eastern areas, which corrupt officers commandeered for personal gain, building hotels, shops and other enterprises.
Ousted as president in 2015, the 72-year-old Rajapaksa is now back as prime minister on the authority of his successor President Maithripala Sirisena, in what many call an illegal and undemocratic changing of the guard. Under pressure, the president will reconvene parliament on November 14 for a vote on his decision to sack incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Until then, apprehension and suspicion permeate Sri Lanka’s Tamil communities. Anxiously awaiting the outcome of this political crisis, Tamils are self-censoring and turning inwards.
On the corner of the temple’s entrance, Navaratnam, a barefoot 62-year-old Tamil garland seller, stands next to his friend, a member of the Sinhalese ethnic group, Sri Lanka’s largest and the one from which Mr Rajapaksa hails. “The situation is better,” Mr Navaratnam said when asked his opinion on the populist’s return. But when his friend walks away, he divulges what he really thinks.
“Since these people are back, you can’t rule out suppression,” he said. “There is a likelihood [of that] but you never know how things will turn out.”
The illegitimate premier paid a visit to the temple the day before, bringing heavy security and making the stall owners leave while he was present. This was never the case with Mr Wickremesinghe, Mr Navaratnam said.
About a million Tamils have left Sri Lanka since the war began in 1983. The estimated 2.2 million remaining Tamils represent about 13 per cent of the population, a significant drop in proportion to the Sinhalese. Many who remain do not want to speak. The wounds of the 25-year-long civil war and Mr Rajapaksa’s reign of terror are still raw.
A Bambalapitiya shop owner, who declined to be named, said the community is “worried and on alert”. Mr Rajapaksa is viewed as thirsty for power and there is a “possibility of revenge” because he was defeated in the 2015 presidential race partly because of minority votes.
In the north, Tamils are using encrypted communications for fear of being monitored. “Most of the people have switched to Telegram and Signal, two apps that are more secure than WhatsApp,” said Sutharshan Sukumaran, the editor of the Tamil Guardian, a news website based in London.
Under Mr Wickremesinghe, life improved for Tamils. They were allowed to protest and to commemorate those killed during the civil war – albeit under the watch of the military. But they are worried that with the return of Mr Rajapaksa, those who have previously spoken out will be targeted.
“A targeted campaign of harassment, intimidation and killings of Tamil activists for political reasons remains the fear amongst Tamils. The repercussions of such violence would be unthinkable,” said Mario Arulthas, the advocacy director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, or Pearl based in Washington DC.
One man who knows better than most about what lies ahead is Mano Ganesan, the 58-year-old leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance, a political union that represents 1.5 million Tamils living outside of the northern and eastern areas, and Minister of Integration, Reconciliation & Official Languages in Mr Wickremesinghe’s cabinet.
In 2006, under Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency, he established a commission to probe extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The same year, the alliance co-founder, Nadarajah Raviraj, was assassinated as he drove to work. Mr Ganesan finished runner-up in the UN Freedom Defender award a year later, which he believes has protected him from a hit ever since.
“Bringing justice, finding the people who have gone missing or not, finding the abductors, there has been small progress,” he told The National. “Under Rajapaksa’s new regime, all progress will be nullified.”
On Friday, as the power struggle in Colombo continued, a Sri Lankan court ordered the arrest of the country’s top military officer over the abduction and murder of 11 people during the civil war. The judge censured top police investigators for failing to follow an order to arrest Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne. It remains unclear if he will be detained.
The military under Mr Rajapaksa is accused of a series of war crimes, including firing indiscriminately on no-fire zones where thousands of civilians had massed and shooting dead Tamil leaders who tried to surrender, on orders of the state. Mr Rajapaksa has denied all allegations and refused to co-operate with a 2014 UN Human Rights Council investigation. The Tamil Tigers were also accused of war crimes.
Sri Lankan police and military have continued to mistreat Tamil activists in the north and east since Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, but could become more emboldened now he is back, Tamil activists and lawmakers say. A surveillance network set up under Mr Rajapaksa to monitor and detain Tamils has remained dormant since his departure. Now, that could be revived. Tamils fear reinvigorated militarisation, even though there have been no Tamil bombings or shooting since the end of the war nine years ago.
Tamil activists and former fighters say detention and torture persists. Much of the land seized by the military in the civil war has not been returned to its rightful owners, despite pledges by the government to do so. Now Mr Rajapaksa is back, that land will likely never leave military hands.
Mr Sukumaran said if Mr Rajapaksa has his way, Sri Lanka could descend into war again, becoming “like Myanmar”, where the military has killed thousands of ethnic Rohingya and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The military is not controlled by the constitution, he says, operating beyond the oversight of Sri Lanka’s parliament.
“Failing to note [increasing] militarisation in the north-east will lead to another situation like Myanmar where they thought they had restored democracy, but it ended in a Nobel Peace Prize winner being unable to stop a genocide,” the Tamil editor said.
Mr Rajapaksa’s reputation for human rights violations has left advocacy groups and much of the international community stunned by Mr Sirisena’s red carpet welcome for him. Mr Sirisena was elected with a mandate to investigate atrocities against Tamils, but justice never materialised.
“To date there’s been no investigations or accountability into these allegations. The post-war period did not see any truth, reparations and justice initiatives that lived up to the expectations of the Tamil community either,” said Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, South Asian researcher at Amnesty International. “Given this experience, a reemergence of the same rulers does not give cause for much hope for the Tamil community.”
In a twist of fate, the Tamils may hold the country’s future in their hands, that is if President Sirisena respects parliament and allows it to vote on the rightful premier. The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, has said it will use its 15 seats to vote against Mr Rajapaksa, who remains neck-and-neck with Mr Wickremesinghe, with both estimated to have 102 backers in the 225-seat parliament.
One Tamil lawmaker, S Viyalendran, has for reasons unknown defected to Mr Rajapaksa’s camp, a move that confused a betrayed party who censured him for “being a part of this conspiracy”. Regardless of that backstab, the Tamil vote could be enough to swing the fortunes in favour of Mr Wickremesinghe.
Mr Rajapaksa is known for his love of gold jewellery, earning him the moniker "Lord of the Rings". His charms, bracelets and talismans bring him good fortune and supernatural strength, he believes. For now, they appear to have worked. A man Sri Lankans voted out three years ago has been spirited back to power by the country’s most senior figure.
That may be short-lived. Some of the Tamils who survived his decade-long rule feel their luck has run out again. But the power to restore democracy, and banish their demon, rests in their leaders' hands.