Former defence chief who led brutal suppression of Tamil Tigers wins Sri Lanka presidential election

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Qadijah Irshad
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A Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrates in Colombo - AFP
A Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrates in Colombo - AFP

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

Gotabhya Rajapaksa, 70, who served as defence secretary during his brother Mahinda's 2005-15 presidency, clinched 52.25 per cent of the votes after a campaign that focused on security in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday attacks.

The election 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 April attacks

Mr Rajapaksa beat rival Sajith Premadasa, the son of a former prime minister who was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber during the country’s civil war.

Mr Rajapaksa faces a series of international war crimes charges for his role in the crushing the Tamil insurgency, and has been accused of  torture and abduction of rebels and civilians, including journalists and rights activists during the civil war which ended in 2009. 

He is also accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings - claims he has denied. His campaign promises of a strong national security policy boosted his popularity amongst the Sinhala Buddhists population, following the Easter Sunday bombings by a homegrown Islamist group that killed 259 people, including eight Brits.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa - Credit: AP
Mr Rajapaksa is revered by Sri Lanka's ethnic majority for his role in ending a bloody civil war but feared by minorities for his brutal approach Credit: AP

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

The country's majority Sinhala Buddhist population comprise about 70 per cent of the island, with ethnic Tamil Hindus at 12.6 per cent, Muslims at 10 per cent and Chrsitans at 8 per cent. 

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 Rajapaksa dynasty comeback.  

Mahinda is expected to become prime minister under a new constitution which would grant him greater powers.

As Mr Rajapaksa prepared to be sworn in as the island’s new president on Monday 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 on Sunday, with Tamils openly saying they were “scared.” “The elected president makes us uneasy. We don’t know what will happen. 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 numbers,” said Ramakrishnan, a 65 year old retired teacher from Jaffna.

Sri Lanka elections - Credit: Reuters
Mr Rajapaksa won support after a nationalist campaign with a promise of security and a vow to crush religious extremism Credit: Reuters

In Jaffna, the former capital of the Tamil Tigers, Mr. Premadasa garnered 83 per cent of the Tamil votes, in the hopes of halting a Rapaksa victory, while a native Tamil candidate gathered less than 2 per cent.

Sathya, a 40 year old mother of two said the future of the Tamils was “very uncertain.” “Not that we hate Gota, but our past experiences have made us Tamils scared.

If something good happens we will be very happy, but considering our past experiences with the Rajapaksas, we don’t expect any miracles. We just want peace,” she said.

Similar sentiments continued to haunt the Tamils of northern Vavuniya where less than two percent of the population voted for Mr. Rajapaksa.

“We are afraid of the repercussions now because we didn’t vote for the Rajapaksas,” said Anu, a government servant. “Our future will be tremendously affected.”

However, speaking at the elections commissions’ office soon after the results were officially released, Mr Rajapaksa assured fair treatment for all. “I understand I am not only the president for the people who voted for me, but also for the people who voted against me,” said Mr Rajapaksa.

“Therefore I will serve you as a Sri Lankan disregarding race and religion.” Political analysts however remain skeptical of a sudden policy change in the Rajapaksa regime.

“Is it going to be a return to the past, or is it going to be a fresh mandate as far as the Rajapaksas are concerned still remains to be seen,” said political analyst Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.  

“We have to come together and heal before we move forward... and we need someone who will bring it together. Mr Gotabhya Rajapaksa certainly hasn’t proved to be that person according to his past record.”