Will Sri Lanka Elect the Devil It Knows?

If a Presidential candidate refers to himself as a devil, chances are he’s in trouble. Last week, campaigning ahead of this Thursday’s election, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent Sri Lankan President, tried hard to endear himself to an audience in the northern city of Jaffna. The crowd consisted almost entirely of Tamils, the island’s largest minority, a community that regards him with suspicion and anger. “There is a saying that the devil you know is better than the unknown angel,” Rajapaksa said. “I am the known devil, so please vote for me.” These two sentences encapsulated the swift and intriguing fall of the once-mighty President.

In January, 2010, when Rajapaksa last ran for reëlection, the circumstances were quite different. The previous year, his Army had ended a nearly three-decade-long civil war, routing the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) guerrillas, who had been fighting for an independent Tamil state. As the war ground to a close, it emerged that the Sri Lankan Army was inflicting horrific damage on Tamil civilians, shelling them indiscriminately in the quest to wipe out the L.T.T.E. (Jon Lee Anderson wrote about this in the magazine.) Rajapaksa ignored the mounting talk of war crimes; instead, he styled himself as a hero who could deliver a united Sri Lanka into a peaceful and prosperous future. In a land fatigued by conflict, this was an appealing pitch. The defeated and frightened Tamils, in the north and the east, voted against him, but Rajapaksa still won almost sixty per cent of the popular ballot, relying upon the Sinhalese majority for his support. A couple of months later, his coalition of parties won a hundred and forty-four of two hundred and twenty-five seats in Parliament—a strong enough majority to pass any laws.

I lived in Sri Lanka for ten months in 2011 and 2012, and I saw Rajapaksa everywhere: on billboards and as looming cutouts, on posters plastered on the flanks of buses, in giant advertisements in the newspaper. In photographs, his hair was always tidily brushed back, his moustache draped thickly across his upper lip, and his jowls smooth and shiny. Even when he smiled, he glowered. His attire was so unvarying—a white shirt and sarong, a maroon sash around his neck, a golden talisman in his hand—that he seemed like a mascot for himself, styled as the protector of Sri Lanka and, in particular, of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhists. Once, riding through Colombo, a friend pulled me out of our trishaw and onto a traffic island, where a pillar rose up amid a quartet of stone lions. At the top of the pillar was a gray disk representing the Buddha’s Wheel of Life; at the base was a quotation in Pali: Sukho Buddhanam Uppado(“Joyful is the birth of the Buddhas”). A plaque in Sinhalese explained that the pillar was a monument to Rajapaksa—a tribute to the man who had saved Buddhist Sri Lanka from the Tamil Hindus and Christians who had tried to carve it up.

Under Rajapaksa, who was first elected in 2005, Sri Lanka has become a troubled, disquieting place. With remarkable obduracy, he has shrugged off internal and international pressure to investigate the Army’s human-rights abuses during the war’s final months. (The United Nations estimates that as many as forty thousand Tamil civilians died in that time.) In fact, in the years since the war the Army has only tightened its hold on the north and the east, policing the people and swallowing their land. Rajapaksa has amended the constitution to remove term limits for the Presidency, marking his intention to linger as long as he can. Many people believe that he has allied himself with Buddhist nationalist groups; he has refused to hold them to account even when, in the past three years, they have turned on Sri Lanka’s Muslims, the country’s other significant religious minority. Last June, one such group, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), attacked Muslim homes and shops in southwestern Sri Lanka, killing four people and injuring eighty. With the explicit support of the government and the Army, Buddhist chauvinists have been colonizing—there’s no other word for it—Hindu and Muslim areas,renaming towns in Sinhalese, planting pagodas where there were once temples or dargahs, and rewriting history along the way. On bus rides from Colombo to Jaffna, I saw, on either side of the A9 highway, the quick growth of holy Bo trees and ovoid pagoda domes, all installed, tended to, and guarded by soldiers.

Rajapaksa’s family has moved into the government wholesale, as if it were an ancestral house; two of his brothers are ministers, another is the speaker of Parliament, and nearly forty other relatives hold various major and minor posts. (When I visited the old Kataragama temple, in the country’s south, the head priest complained that the custodian was transforming its character from Hindu to Buddhist. The custodian, no surprise, was a Rajapaksa.) The family has acquired a reputation for corruption, and for employing squads of thugs to settle scores. Dissent is not well received; journalists and activists live in fear of what is known as a “white-van abduction,” in which they are yanked off the road either to receive physically administered lessons or to vanish altogether. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Sri Lanka fourth—behind Iraq, Somalia, and the Philippines, and just ahead of Syria—on its 2014 Impunity Index, a list of countries “where journalists are slain and the killers go free.”

MahindaToHitler_LnWOn occasion, the Rajapaksas have even indulged in straight tin-pot behavior. At one point, the President’s brother Gotabhaya, the defense minister, installed a tank of sharks on his front lawn; another time, a source told me, he decided that he didn’t like the yellow of an awning above a restaurant on a road where he took his morning walks and ordered it changed to white. When a fellow-student complained that the President’s son Namal had passed his law-school exams only because he had been given his own room and a computer with Internet access, the student was allegedly threatened by police and beaten bythugs.*

The aggregation of all of this misrule chipped away at Rajapaksa’s popularity, prompting him to call this election two years ahead of schedule, apparently still confident about his prospects. (The country’s economy has been growing at a rapid rate.) But then he encountered an unexpected and sturdy rival: Maithripala Sirisena, a minister who last month defected from Rajapaksa’s government and joined an alliance of opposition parties, taking twenty-five parliamentarians with him. “I came out because I could not stay any more with a leader who had plundered the country, government, and national wealth,” Sirisena said. Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena ardently courts the Buddhist right, and he has said that he won’t diminish the strength or the influence of the Army. But he has also promised to address corruption, to permit investigations into war crimes, and to restore the judiciary’s independence—to undo, in other words, many of the effects of the past four years of Rajapaksa’s reign.

And yet, despite this challenge, Rajapaksa may still win. He became his country’s youngest parliamentarian in 1970, at the age of twenty-four, and he is now a veteran of many elections—“an old fox who can do this in his sleep,” as an Indian politician who knows him well put it.

Sirisena, who has never run for President, has had less than two months to organize his campaign, and the coalition behind him is large but frangible. If Rajapaksa triumphs, he will likely hunker down with even greater tenacity, pulling his family closer still. He will bend the state and its machinery even more to the contours of his power, in ways that will bode poorly for Sri Lankan democracy.

* This post has been altered to clarify allegations made about President Rajapaksa’s son Namal.