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Sri Lanka: Minorities fear return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Amanda Coakley
November 14, 2019

Former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and relative newcomer Sajith Premadasa are the prominent candidates in Sri Lanka's presidential vote. Minorities are concerned a Rajapaksa win could be a step backwards.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Jayawardena

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to vote for a new president this Saturday, the name Gotabaya Rajapaksa will stand out among the list of candidates.

To many Sinhalese, Rajapaksa is the embodiment of a country's savior — the great former defense secretary who crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, after nearly three decades of civil war. 

To Sri Lanka's minorities the name Gotabaya Rajapaksa cuts to their core. 

Relatives of ethnic minority Tamils killed or disappeared during the conflict between the ruling Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil separatists, accuse Rajapaksa of war crimes. 

Muslims fear his association with Buddhist hardliners, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or "Buddhist Power Force," who have stirred up hatred against the community for decades. These groups have encouraged Sinhalese to boycott Muslim-owned businesses, cease renting property to Muslim families and be "unofficial policemen" against Muslim extremism.

Gotabaya, the opposition candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), will need the minority vote — the votes of Tamils, Muslims and Christians — to ensure victory on Saturday. The brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ruled the island nation with an iron fist from 2005 to 2015, is challenged primarily by relative newcomer Sajith Premadasa, the current minister for housing and deputy leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP). 

Read more: How did Islamist terrorism take hold in Sri Lanka?

Sajith Premadasa
The ruling United National Party's presidential candidate Sajith PremadasaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/E. Jayawardena

A delicate balancing act

Both men are trying to balance appealing to Sinhalese nationalists, while proving to minorities that they can protect them. For many Tamils and Muslims it's becoming a case of: the devil you know or the devil you don't.

Sri Lanka's bitter civil war ended in May 2009 after the LTTE's surrender at Mullaitivu in the northeast. In the final days as the frontlines closed in on the Tigers, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped between the two sides. 

They fled to government-declared "no-fire zones" which were then subjected to shelling by the Sri Lankan army. Evidence also shows medical facilities were repeatedly struck and the delivery of humanitarian aid was blocked .

In a report published in 2011 the UN estimated that up to 40,000 civilians were killed, a figure the government rejected, declaring at the time that the report was "fundamentally flawed." Following the Tiger's defeat surviving Tamil civilians were rounded up and put into camps, it's reported that those taken for interrogation were never seen again. 

Allegations of war crimes were made against the government and the LTTE, who were accused of using civilians as human shields, but across Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas were praised for ending the war.

Gotabaya has rejected all allegations made against him and the military. The fact that he has not been held responsible for his role in the conflict has, however, angered Tamils living with the war's painful legacy.

Sri Lanka: civil war

Return of Gotabaya 'terrifying' for Tamils

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest party representing Tamils, announced their endorsement of Premadasa in a statement last week.

"The record of the Podujana Peramuna, and its candidate Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and others in governance with them, has been dismal," the TNA wrote, before going on to list the Rajapaksas' record of manipulation and abuse while in power. 

Despite the TNA's backing of Premadasa, many Tamils are resentful of the current government's lack of action on investigating alleged war crimes. 

In a report published in January, Amnesty International said that while some investigations into attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, religious minorities and civil society organizations had been opened, none had resulted in a conviction.

There has been "dismayingly limited progress on accountability for torture, rape, sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Delays in prosecutions also extend to human rights abuses committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam," the report said.

At a press conference last month, Rajapaksa said he would not honour the government's 2015 agreement with the UN to deliver justice: "We have already rejected that, as a party we have rejected that agreement and in public we have rejected that... On this issue, our policies and the present government policies are far apart," he declared.

A former TNA spokesman, Raghu Balachandran, told DW that the Tamils feared the return of Gotabaya.

"For the Tamil people a return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a terrifying thing," Balachandran said. "They fear that there wouldn't be any freedom, that there will once again be life threats not only to the community but to all those who stand up for human rights."

Sri Lanka Negombo Zerstörte St. Sebastian Kirche nach Anschlag
More than 250 people were killed in the Easter Sunday bombing attacksImage: Reuters/A. Perawongmetha

Impact of Easter Sunday attacks

The terror attacks in April killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more. In the weeks following the attrocities, there was growing concern over religious extremism.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Rajapaska has made fighting terrorism a top priority. 

The seven suicide attacks that targeted Christians and tourists were the country's first experience of Muslim-on-Christian violence, according to the International Crisis Group. 

The Islamic-State inspired atrocities were carried out by the militant group, the National Thowheed Jamath and in the weeks that followed anti-muslim rhetoric steadily grew. 

Communal rioting in May destroyed property and one man was hacked to death. In the same month, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, to the shock of many in the Muslim community, pardoned Gnanasara Thero, the leader of Bodu Bala Sena, who was accused of inciting violence against them and convicted of contempt of court. In a report in a nationalist newspaper, a Muslim doctor, Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi, was accused of sterilizing 4,000 Sinhalese. He was arrested and later released on bail. He denies any allegations. 

'Muslims cannot trust' Rajapaska

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka told DW that in the months before the election, anti-Muslim rhetoric died down across the country.

"The joke going around in Muslim circles, is that during the month of fasting, all the devils are chained. Now until these elections are over, all those hate mongering devils [who spread hate against Muslims] are being chained by the Rajapaksa family [because they need the votes]," Ahamed said.

He added that Muslims believe the Sinhalese nationalist groups were siding with Rajapaska.

"That's why Muslims cannot trust what he says. The thought of the extremists that he is associated with being in government is also driving away the Muslim vote," said Ahamed. 

Discrimination against the Muslim community who make up 9.7% of the population — Tamils make up 12.6% — has been ongoing for years. Buddhist nationalists have targeted moderate Sinhalese arguing that increasing "Arabization” of Muslims is posing a threat to their way of life. 

The Easter Sunday attacks fueled this behavior and created an environment of doubt among the moderates who had previously dismissed the nationalists' claims. Some of the fears, criticisms and myths about Muslims were also shared by an increasing number of Tamils.

"There is still mistrust of Muslims, their economic power, their influence, and that can be cultivated when needed," says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group. "No one sees anti-Muslim rhetoric as useful right now. Rajapaksa and his camp need to try and win some Muslim votes. It was the loss of this vote that led to Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat in 2015."

Concerns over governmental competence

Premadasa, who is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, may be a ray of hope for some in minority communities, but he is still part of a government that failed to prevent what happened on Easter Sunday, and this is a reality that Sri Lankans are struggling to overcome. 

Despite warnings from the international community, and concerns about the National Thowheed Jamath being put forward by the Muslim Council, alleged governmental incompetence allowed the sophisticated operation to fall under the radar. 

Premadasa has made national security a big-ticket issue in his campaign, announcing in October that Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief who announced the government's victory over the LTTE, would be his head of national security. What Muslims want are assurances that they will be protected from nationalist groups and that their voices will be heard.

Meanwhile, Rajapaska has been positioning himself as a man who can get things done. As Sri Lanka recovers in the aftermath of the April bombings, he is keen to stress that he will put an end to religious extremism.

While there are no formal opinion polls, Rajapaska appears to be pushing out ahead of his opponents. He has already pledged to install his brother Mahinda as prime minister, an indicator to many in minority communities that a Rajapaska win will be a return to the past.