Friday 6 December 2019

Sri Lanka split as strongman takes the reins of power

Sri Lanka’s president-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters
Sri Lanka’s president-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters

Qadijah Irshad

A former Sri Lankan defence chief who led a brutal crackdown on Tamil Tiger separatists has been elected as the country's president, raising fear among the country's religious and ethnic minorities.

Gotabhya Rajapaksa (70), who was defence secretary during his brother Mahinda's 2005-15 presidency, clinched 52.25pc of the vote after a campaign that focused on security in the wake of the Easter Sunday terror attacks on churches and tourists.

The poll was seen as a popularity test of the United National Party (UNP) government of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which has been accused of ignoring intelligence that could have helped prevent the attacks.

Mr Rajapaksa defeated UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa, the son of a former prime minister who was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber during the country's civil war.

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Mr Rajapaksa faces a series of international war crime charges for his role in crushing the Tamil insurgency.

He has been accused of torture and abduction of rebels and civilians, including journalists and rights activists during the civil war, which ended in 2009. It is also claimed that he has condoned sexual violence and extrajudicial killings - claims he has denied.

His campaign promises of a strong national security policy boosted his popularity amongst the Sinhala Buddhist population, following the Easter Sunday bombings by a homegrown Islamist group that killed 259 people, including eight Britons.

The new president is also hailed as a war hero by most Sinhalese for ending the three-decade bloody war against the Tamil Tigers, together with his brother.

The country's Sinhala Buddhist population comprises about 70pc of the island, with ethnic Tamil Hindus at 12.6pc, Muslims at 10pc and Christians at 8pc. But the divisive politics of the Rajapaksas, who are backed by extremist Buddhist clergy who have been responsible for past attacks on minority Muslims and Christians, has raised fears of a dynasty comeback.

As Mr Rajapaksa prepared to be sworn in as the island's new president today in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, the minority communities in the north and east who voted for Mr Premadasa said they were fearful for the future.

The usually vibrant northern city of Jaffna was eerily quiet yesterday, with Tamils openly saying they were "scared".

"The elected president makes us uneasy. We don't know what will happen," said Ramakrishnan, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Jaffna.

"We expected Mr Premadasa to become president.

"This is the first time in history the Tamil people have voted for a Sinhalese candidate in such overwhelming number."

The president-elect appeared to try to allay the fears and scepticism of the minorities in his speech after the official announcement of results.

"I have fully understood that I am the president of all citizens not only of those who voted for me but also all those who voted against me," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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