In this article, Professor Neil DeVotta discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic could slow down Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s majoritarian push. In doing so, it could provide some space to emphasize the virtues of covenantal pluralism, for which there is existing potential and precedent in Sri Lankan society.
In November of 2019 Sri Lanka’s fearsome former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the island’s president. Branded “The Terminator” by family members for the ruthless way he dealt with detractors, Gotabaya’s early decisions as president reiterated his Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist credentials, threatened to erase residues of pluralism, and seemed to steer the country in a militaristic and authoritarian direction.
Sri Lanka, the island the Arabs called Serendib and thereby inspired the word “serendipity,” has been anything but fortunate since gaining independence in 1948. Two left wing insurrections and a long ethnic conflict between majority Sinhalese Buddhists and minority Tamils likely killed nearly a quarter million people. Once the Tamil rebels were defeated in 2009, emboldened Buddhist radicals systematically terrorized Muslims, who had also suffered at the hands of Tamil separatists. Previously, Buddhist extremists attacked Christians—mainly Evangelical Protestants but Catholics too. Then, on Easter Sunday last year, Islamist suicide bombers stunned the world by killing 267 people in two hotels and three Christian churches.
Sadly this so-called “resplendent isle” is increasingly a posterchild for communalism and illiberalism, not covenantal pluralisms undergirded by multiconfessional coexistence. The island and its polyethnic and multireligious people will never realize their potential unless they embrace an ethos rooted in covenantal pluralism.
Covenantal pluralism promotes going beyond merely tolerating diversity and instead challenges individuals to engage with and protect all communities as part of an accommodating national narrative. A world replete with communities competing for scarce resources amidst natural disasters and migration will see increased ethnic and communal strife, and covenantal pluralism nudges us towards better appreciating our common humanity in an interdependent world where ethnoreligious bridge building must necessarily begin at the community level. To what extent is Sri Lanka likely to move away from its hitherto ethnocentric milieu towards covenantal pluralism?
Sri Lanka, like much of South Asia, is associated with political dynasties. In recent years, the Rajapaksa clan has combined authoritarianism with Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism to dominate the country’s politics. Hailing from the country’s south, the extended family has been in politics for nearly a century. It was under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya that Tamil separatists were defeated in highly controversial fashion. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president, he quickly made brother Mahinda prime minister. In August 2020, the party led by the Rajapaksas won parliamentary elections in a landslide and, with its allies, now commands a supermajority. This enabled the brothers to pass the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which reintroduces extensive presidential powers.
The Rajapaksa family ran the country from 2005 to 2015 and their return since 2019 led most observers to believe that a Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocracy was about to be consolidated. For no sooner had Gotabaya Rajapaksa become president, sentry posts went up along certain roads and outside some church houses in the predominantly Tamil Northern Province. Intelligence operatives began monitoring prominent civil society groups even as serving and retired military personnel took over influential government positions typically run by civilians. When the island commemorated its independence day in February, the president disallowed the national anthem sung in Tamil, a practice the previous government had reintroduced. In March, the president pardoned an Army Staff Sergeant sentenced to death for slitting the throats of eight Tamil civilians, including three children. Then in June, the president created two task forces that appeared to promote his autocratic and majoritarian agendas. All this takes place as the government forcibly cremates Muslims who died from COVID-19, which contravenes Islamic practices and World Health Organization recommendations.
Sri Lanka operates as a Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocracy. This notwithstanding, there is still considerable potential for covenantal pluralism in the country given its great religious diversity, where most non-Buddhists feel free to practice their religions conspicuously. The size of West Virginia, this country comprises about 20,000 places of worship, with half belonging to non-Buddhist religions. Hence why 89.2 percent of respondents in the 2019 Values and Attitudes Survey said they practice their religious activities freely and why the country earns a moderate ranking on the most recent Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project Government Restriction Index.
The major Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious festivals are national holidays in Sri Lanka, and it is common for prominent politicians, including the Rajapaksas, to participate in their festivities. The island also comprises venues of ecumenism that bring together devotees from multiple faiths, and this includes St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo that Islamists attacked on Easter Sunday last year. Additionally, interfaith communities operate at various levels, often assisted by nongovernmental organizations committed to promoting pluralism and ethnoreligious coexistence. For instance, after the Easter Sunday attacks multireligious leaders led by the Catholic archbishop campaigned against any acts of revenge on Muslims, thereby preventing a bloodbath. The government at the time also prevented communal flames from flaring by blocking ethnoreligious entrepreneurs who were eager to profit from the carnage.
This makes clear the important role political and religious elites play in stoking or mitigating communal violence. Unfortunately, numerous Sri Lankan leaders since independence have sought to profit from ethnoreligious tensions, thereby highlighting what misery transpires when communalism and majoritarianism trump covenantal pluralism. Sri Lankans, however, are a resilient people who value democracy and are cognizant of their syncretic religious heritage.
It is up to those Sri Lankan leaders in civil society and politics who oppose religious nationalism and extremism to leverage Sri Lanka’s covenantal-pluralist potential and make the most of opportunities as they present themselves. In this context, COVID-19 may have some paradoxically positive effects. The pandemic has of course exacerbated Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic woes and pauperized people –but it has done this to masses from all ethnoreligious communities.
In short, the pandemic accentuates people’s common humanity, given its nondescript targets. This realization appears to have softened ethnoreligious tensions that erupted following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president and encouraged Sri Lankans to help their fellow citizens irrespective of their religious backgrounds. For instance, Muslims were among the first to use zakat funds to provide dry rations to those from all religious communities when the government imposed lockdowns and curfews. Civil society groups like the National Peace Council also mobilized District Inter Religious Committees across the island to distribute essential supplies to the most marginalized. And many non-Muslims have been at the forefront in criticizing the government for forcibly cremating people who have died from the coronavirus. Such outcomes show that there remains forces conducive to promoting covenantal pluralism despite the island’s majoritarian reputation.
Could COVID-19 prompt President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pursue a more consensus politics that aligns with notions of covenantal pluralism? Or will he follow through with his predilection to consolidate a Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocracy, which could for a while also help mask the country’s economic troubles? As he celebrates a year as president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to determine whether Sri Lanka’s fortunes improve or are further impaired.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.