While You Weren't Looking

The Rajapaksas Win in a Landslide in Sri Lanka

Parliamentary elections on Thursday cemented the family’s hold on power, amid warnings that human rights will suffer as a result.

A man reads a local newspaper covering the results of Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections in Colombo on Aug. 7.
A man reads a local newspaper covering the results of Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections in Colombo on Aug. 7. ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: The Rajapaksa family cements its power with a landslide victory in Sri Lanka, a Saudi dissident files a lawsuit against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and scientists in Rwanda identify a new strain of drug-resistant malaria.

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Sri Lanka’s Elections Boost Rajapaksas’ Power

This week’s parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka have strengthened the power of the Rajapaksa family, handing them a supermajority to change the constitution, as rights groups warn that human rights in the country are in critical danger. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party won 145 out of 225 seats in the parliament in results announced Friday.

With the support of its parliamentary allies, the SLPP is expected to easily secure the two-thirds majority needed to repeal a 2015 amendment to the constitution that diluted the power of the presidency and strengthened the roles of the parliament and prime minister. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president last November and appointed his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president from 2005 to 2015, as prime minister.

During Mahinda’s presidency, Gotabaya served as defense minister, overseeing the last years of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war. After their presidential loss in 2015, the successor government accused the family of involvement in massive corruption, including stashing as much as $18 billion overseas. The Rajapaksas’ role in ending the conflict in 2009, when the army regained full control of the island and killed the leader of the Tamil Tigers, brought the brothers significant support among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

Gotabaya, a U.S. citizen, has been accused in a California court of committing crimes against humanity during the brutal final stages of the war.

“Alarming trend.” Last week, almost a dozen international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed a joint letter calling on the Sri Lankan government to end targeted arrests and intimidation of lawyers, human rights defenders, and activists. The letter warned of an “alarming trend towards the militarization of the state,” as retired military officers have taken on senior roles previously held by civilians. Institutions such as the NGO Secretariat have been brought under the control of the Defense Ministry.

Debt-trap diplomacy. During the Rajapaksas’ previous tenure, Sri Lanka borrowed billions of dollars from China and handed over control of the port of Hambantota to Beijing after failing to keep up with repayments. A drift toward China is likely to cause concern in Washington as the United States seeks to check China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

During the previous government, Sri Lanka became the U.S. Navy’s logistics hub in the Indian Ocean, but further agreements are unlikely under the Rajapaksas, the Wall Street Journal reports.


What We’re Following

Saudi Arabia’s reach. A former senior Saudi intelligence official accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of sending a group of agents to Canada to kill him less than two weeks after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, according to a case filed in a U.S. federal court on Thursday. In a detailed filing, Saad Aljabri, who is in exile in Toronto, alleges that the crown prince wants him dead because he is “uniquely positioned to existentially threaten Defendant bin Salman’s standing with the U.S. Government” and has damning insights into Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power.

The case marks the first time that a former senior Saudi official has publicly accused Mohammed bin Salman of trying to violently suppress his critics, according to the New York Times. Aljabri also said his two adult children were arrested in Riyadh in March in a bid to lure him back to Saudi Arabia.

Drug-resistant malaria. Scientists in Rwanda have identified a drug-resistant strain of the parasite that causes malaria. Their research, published in the journal Nature this week, is the first time scientists have observed resistance to artemisinin, one of the most commonly used drugs against the disease. The authors of the research said resistance to the drug could pose a “major public health threat” in Africa. Resistance to earlier antimalarials, such as chloroquine and pyrimethamine, is thought to have contributed to millions of additional deaths among African children in the 1980s.

Eyes over Taiwan. The United States is in talks to sell at least four sophisticated aerial surveillance drones to Taiwan, Reuters reported Thursday. The move will likely fuel rising tensions with China. The SeaGuardian drones have a reach of 6,000 nautical miles and could dramatically increase Taiwan’s ability to keep tabs on Chinese activity in the region. News of the negotiations came on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will visit the island—the most senior U.S. official to do so since Washington broke off official ties with Taiwan in 1979.

Sanctions challenge. Last Friday, the Trump administration announced that it would sanction the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a Chinese paramilitary colonial organization that is a critical part of Beijing’s mass incarceration and persecution of Uighurs and other Muslims. The organization controls a substantial portion of the Xinjiang economy, and the sanctions represent a significant U.S. escalation. Research by the analysis firm Sayari found that the XPCC is the beneficial owner of 862,600 subsidiaries in 147 countries, including in the United States and Europe, some of which were buried in ownership structures 10 steps removed from the paramilitary organization.

The findings underscore the magnitude and scope of the sanctions but also the challenge for companies around the world seeking to figure out whether their supply chains intersect with the XPCC’s extensive reach. The XPCC runs around 20 percent of Xinjiang’s economy, making the sanctions effectively a ban on any trade.


Keep an Eye On 

ISIS in Afghanistan. Militants associated with the Islamic State launched an assault on a prison in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, leaving some 400 prisoners—many of them Islamic State and Taliban militants—unaccounted for. Twenty-nine people were killed in the 20-hour siege, including security guards, civilians, and prisoners. All the assailants were reportedly killed. The attack was one of the most complicated pulled off by Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, where the group is known for its attacks on so-called soft targets, such as the assault on a wedding in Kabul last year that killed 63 people and wounded nearly 200.

Kashmir one year on. This week marked the one-year anniversary of India’s decision to end the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir—its only Muslim-majority state—by revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Following the move, Kashmir’s internet was shut down for several months, and tens of thousands of troops were deployed to what was already thought to be one of the most militarized areas in the world. One year on, Adil Amin Akhoon and Sharafat Ali report for Foreign Policy from Srinagar, the region’s largest city, where peace remains a distant hope.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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