Sri Lanka: Strongman president spurs fear in minorities

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka’s minorities appear to be uncertain as to what’s in store for them under new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who swept to power on Nov. 16 in the presidential election.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa faces several serious allegations ranging from war crimes committed against the Tamil community during the civil war and for being the mastermind of several Buddhist nationalist organizations that launched anti- Muslim campaigns in 2013, followed by attacks against the community in 2014.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the once-powerful defense secretary during the term of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his elder brother, claims credit for defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebel group in 2009 after 26 years of civil war, which helped him and his brother rule the country with an iron fist while allegedly engaging in nepotism, corruption and also silencing dissent.

But since the election, it appears that the Rajapaksas have made a comeback to grip power. The new president appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister on Thursday afternoon to head a caretaker government until the next parliamentary election.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his maiden speech called on the Tamils and Muslims to join him in his journey forward. But his call came with an uncomfortable reminder in which he told minorities that he received a lukewarm response for them in the form of votes.

He was particularly thankful to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority who voted him into power. Tamils make up to 12.6% of the 21 million population in the Buddhist majority island nation while Muslims constitute 9.7%.

End discrimination

Alan Keenan, country director of the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, said that the new president will have to work hard if he wants to reassure Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims that he considers them equal citizens deserving equal protection.

“Both Tamils and Muslims have borne the brunt of discriminatory treatment by the Sri Lankan state, with serious crimes committed against them.

“The fact that such crimes took place while Gotabaya oversaw the police and military during his brother’s presidency has raised fears that both groups could face renewed pressure,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Rajapaksa suffered a heavy defeat in the country’s north and east which is dominated by the Tamils and Muslims. Majority of the minorities voted in favor of Rajapaksa’s rival, Sajith Premadasa, who was seen as a moderate candidate.

Following the release of the election results, many hardcore Rajapaksa fans took to social media to hurl insults on the north and east voters, calling them terrorists and extremists. Many of those posts were subsequently taken down by Facebook. 

Building national identity

Raghu Balachandran, a Tamil national political activist, says that the Tamil people have always voted against majoritarianism.

“This election has really been polarized, and it holds an important message from the minority communities, which must be given proper attention in the future,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“The greatest challenge that Mr. Rajapaksa has as the president is to step up and bring all communities together and build the Sri Lankan identity. This is an important task if the country is to move forward,” he said.

With the UN estimating some 40,000 civilians were killed during the civil war, Balachandran said it is important for the new president to address unanswered questions of the Tamil people in terms of killings and disappearance of Tamils during the war.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, an umbrella organization of Muslim civil society groups, also echoed Balachandran’s sentiments.

“This is an election where there is clear division between the Sinhala Buddhists and the rest. The minorities in the north and east have overwhelmingly voted against Mr. Rajapaksa. Uniting the country should be the priority for the president to undertake a smooth presidency,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Incidentally, just days after Rajapaksa won the election, two Buddhist monk-led Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organizations, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the new Sinhala Ravaya announced disbanding of their organizations after the parliamentary elections, likely to be held in March of next year, as the country has a “good leader now”.

Healing old wounds

Jehan Perera, executive director of a think tank, National Peace Council said that last Saturday’s election has shown the existence of a wound that needs healing.

“There is currently a spate of hate speech against the ethnic and religious minorities who are seen by those who supported the president as traitors to the country. President Rajapaksa needs to call for an end to this as one of his first steps in reassuring the ethnic and religious minorities and in reuniting the divided polity,” he said.

Few expect that under Rajapaksa’s presidency there will be credible investigations into, or legal accountability for, alleged war crimes committed by both sides in the final months of the government’s war with the Tamil rebels.

“It would also be surprising if the police or judiciary are willing or able to continue their extensive investigations into numerous high-profile cases of fraud, abductions and political murders committed during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa,” he added.

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