“Look: the Muslims are here, the Hindus are here, the Catholics are here. All the same blood. “This is the real Sri Lanka.” Lukshan Wattuhewa gestures across Galle Face Green on Colombo’s colourful seafront, where thousands of demonstrators now converge daily.
He hopes massive anti-government protests – fuelled by the country’s worst ever economic crisis – can mark a turning point in the decades of ethnic and religious violence that have scarred so many communities across Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk nearby agrees: “People are putting aside religious and racial differences to join this struggle. Sri Lanka has become one united nation.”
Both men are from the Sinhala Buddhist majority, who account for three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s diverse population. Tamil Hindus, Muslims and Christians are among the country’s sizeable minorities. For weeks now, citizens have been taking to the streets across Sri Lanka with a simple message: “Gota go home”. “Gota” is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s president, who swept to election victory on a Sinhala nationalist platform months after the deadly Easter Day bombings, which were carried out by an Islamist group in 2019.
But now his support has plummeted. Economic hardship has pushed many of those who voted for him to demand his resignation. Aside from economic mismanagement, much of his presidency has been defined by accusations of racism. Critics say he successfully fanned the country’s longstanding ethnic and religious tensions for political gain. At his inauguration Mr Rajapaksa himself said: “I knew I could win this presidency through Sinhalese votes alone.”
he politics of Sinhalese supremacy is not new in Sri Lanka, with Tamils being the most targeted community historically. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s defence secretary in 2009 when the government put a brutal end to a decades-long civil war with the separatist LTTE or Tamil Tigers. Many in the Sinhalese population hailed him as a hero at the time but there have also been calls to hold him accountable for human rights abuses carried out during the war.
Critics say that instead of then reaching out to the Tamil community, the Rajapaksas continued to pursue a populist majoritarian agenda that made Tamils feel like second-class citizens. But since the Easter Day bombings and Rajapaksa’s election, Muslims too have increasingly faced vilification. BBC