ROME – In the wake of the deaths of 253 people in last Sunday’s Sri Lanka bombings, it seems trivial – not to mention horrifically insensitive – to focus on something so squalid as the political fallout from such a massive tragedy.
Nonetheless, in view of the fact that they have a presidential election later this year, Sri Lankans themselves can’t help thinking about it – and, right now, it seems one irony of bombings which targeted Catholic churches is that they could reverse a sea change in Sri Lankan political life that many locals, especially Catholics, associate with Pope Francis.
Just days before Francis arrived in the island nation in January 2015, Sri Lankans surprised even themselves by unseating powerful incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who’d held a firm grip for ten years, in favor of challenger Maithripala Sirisena.
Rajapaksa was the candidate of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who were protagonists in a bloody 30-year civil war with ethnically Tamil separatists in which around 100,000 people are believed to have died. Rajapaksa broke the back of the insurgency by launching an all-out military campaign coupled with pervasive intelligence and surveillance efforts, with fighting largely ended in May 2009 with the surrender of the main Tamil rebel group.
While Rajapaksa won the war, many Sri Lankans felt he didn’t win the peace. He talked about reconciliation, they said, but in reality he pursued policies that benefitted the Sinhalese, including hardline Buddhist nationalists, at the expense of not only the Tamils but other minority groups, including the country’s minority religions – Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
Critics also accused Rajapaksa of becoming increasingly authoritarian and isolated, relying on a sprawling intelligence network run by his brother, Gotabhaya, to exercise tight control over dissidents and challengers.
Still, few took seriously the idea that he could be defeated – or, for that matter, that he would even permit such a result.
Nonetheless, Sirisena ran on a platform of reconciliation and national harmony, and he enjoyed the strong backing of most Sri Lankan minorities. Father Joseph Ignatius Niroshan Vaz, a 39-year-old Sri Lankan priest who spoke to a group of reporters on Monday in Rome, said that definitely included the country’s Catholics.
“After the war, Catholics were against Rajapaksa,” Vaz said. “When Sirisena ran, about 60 to 65 percent [of Catholics] were with him, or at least with his party.”
Thus it was that when Francis came to the country that January, Catholics, along with many other Sri Lankans, were in a celebratory mood, sensing a new moment of national possibility.
Sirisena, who was a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, is also a Sinhalese Buddhist, but he made the Tamil minority a cornerstone of his electoral base. He also called for an end to the growing cult of personality around the presidency.
“What our country needs is not a king, but a real human being,” he said.
Many Sri Lankans at the time believed Francis’s brief trip gave Sirisena a papal seal of approval.
For one thing, they said, Sirisena’s campaign rhetoric was about unity, reconciliation, and healing, terms that Francis used repeatedly while there and which locals took as a kind of endorsement. For another, this was Sirisena’s first major event since taking office, and the fact that it was perceived to go well extended the climate of national exuberance that followed his surprise win.
For a while, it seemed Sirisensa was a good bet to win reelection in 2019, as the country’s economy was doing relatively well and the tourist industry in particular has been booming. Prior to the bombings, Lonely Planet ranked Sri Lanka as the world’s number one travel destination for 2019, citing such “unmissable experiences” as a 300-strong elephant gathering at Minneriya national park, thousand-year old Buddhist monuments, and hiking and train travel through tea plantations.
After the bombings, however, the landscape has changed.
Though the 73-year-old Rajapaksa won’t be on the ballot, his brother, Gotabhaya will. He announced his candidacy on April 27, just six days after the bombings, vowing to “tackle radical Islam” and to rebuild the country’s intelligence apparatus, which he charges has been dismantled under Sirisena. That’s a popular rallying cry right now, as many Sri Lankans blame the intelligence service for failing to anticipate the attacks and take proper security measures.
(It should be noted that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa still has to overcome a couple of hurdles. He holds American citizenship, and Sri Lankan law bars someone with dual citizenship from the presidency. He’s made a formal request to renounce his standing as a U.S. citizen. Also, he faces two lawsuits in the United States, one related to the assassination of a journalist on his watch and the other from a Tamil survivor of torture during the war. In theory, either one could generate an extradition request.)
Vaz said the Rajapaksa dynasty could stand to benefit from the country’s new climate of fear.
“These terrorist acts make it possible for them to come forward and get many votes again,” he said.
At the moment, a precise date for the election has not yet been set, though Sri Lankan law specifies that it must be held by December 9. One “x factor” in how things play out between now and then may be the attitude of Sri Lanka’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, who according to Vaz is now the country’s “famous man” for his leadership during the crisis.
Many observers felt that Ranjith was fairly close to the Rajapaksa government, but he’s also cultivated good relations with Sirisena, and it remains to be seen how he might deploy his new political and social capital.
On Monday, Ranjith called for an aggressive response from the government to terrorist violence “as if on a war footing,” which some may be tempted to see as not altogether different from some of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s rhetoric.
According to Vaz, if there is to be any official direction on political matters to the country’s Catholics, it’ll have to come from Ranjith himself – in part because ordinary people won’t tolerate it from priests.
“Priests don’t say anything political in church,” Vaz said. “If we tried, our Christians would say, ‘You’re not supposed to do that. Don’t get involved in these dirty politics.’”
Whatever happens when Sri Lankans go to the polls, Vaz suggested the Catholic Church arguably has a more fundamental contribution to make – teaching an entire country how to answer evil with good.
“We Christians, we forgive,” he said. “These acts created great anger in us, but we washed away this anger with our tears, and we forgive these people.”