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Sri Lanka: What Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory means for country’s strained religious, ethnic mix

10 years after war with LTTE ended, Lanka remains haunted by its ghosts. What does victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man most closely associated with it, mean for the country's strained religious, ethnic mix? The Indian Express travels from Colombo to Jaffna, Buddhist strongholds and Christian towns to Muslim refugees and Tamil victims, and finds a yearning for peace.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Colombo |
Updated: November 24, 2019 11:41:52 am
Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura; (Above) Gotabaya with brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the new cabinet in Colombo. (Agency)

Ruwan Lankeshwara, a Colombo-based government employee in his 40s, is not a sympathiser of the Rajapaksa family. But, in the recent Lankan presidential elections, he did not just vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa but also drove down 200 km with a group of friends to attend his swearing-in on November 17. It made the Sinhalese Buddhist happy that Gotabaya chose Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka with Buddhist links going back to the 3rd century, for his oath-taking.

To the others, it was a confirmation of fears that with the return of Gotabaya, whose name evokes the brutal crackdown and killings towards the end of the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka had returned to the days of Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism. Of the 52.25% votes that Gotabaya’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won in the election, most came from Sinhalese-dominated areas. As many as 80% of voters in the minority regions in north and east voted for his rival Sajith Premadasa, of the United National Party (UNP). Also a Sinhala Buddhist, Premadasa was seen to have backing across sections.

Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express Gotabaya with brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the new cabinet in Colombo. (Agency)

Days after Gotabaya’s victory, elder brother Mahinda, who had been the president at the time of the war, was sworn in as the new prime minister. In the interim cabinet, the crucial portfolios are held by the two and a third brother — making the hold of the powerful Rajapaksas on the country total.

However, 10 years down from victory against the LTTE, Sri Lanka is not the same country. Many of the Rajapaksa government’s excesses at the time had been excused amidst the heady rush of it becoming the first regime in the world to finish an insurgency as ingrained as the Tigers’s. Gotabaya takes over a country that has buried the wounds of that war, if not the pain of it — and any false move could bring those scars up again. Besides, Lanka is yet to fully recover from the April 21 Easter Sunday blasts, which left its tourism economy badly hit, and were a reminder of the fragility of peace in its complex racial, ethnic mix.

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During his campaign, Gotabaya did try to assuage the fears. The most celebrated slogan of the 70-year-old ‘President Gota’ was ‘Inclusive nationalism’.

Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express At a polling booth. Many Muslims believe Gotabaya is a changed man.


The signs of the April 21 blasts that hit three churches and three luxury hotels here, leaving 257 dead, are barely visible in the modern, colonial Sri Lankan capital seven months later, but for a barred portion of Shangri-La International Hotel where repairs are still on.


Many attribute Gotabaya’s win to those attacks — the deadliest since the time of the LTTE. The SLPP’s campaign revolved around his image of being strong on national security. The previous government, led by Ranil Wickeremesinghe of the UNP as PM (Maithripala Sirisena as president), was accused of failing to act on crucial intelligence inputs that could have prevented the carnage.

The Tamils (11.2% of the population), Christians (7.5), and Muslims (9.7%) are seen as UNP supporters. The Sinhalese Buddhists make up 70%. Many Christians admit that “Islamic extremism”, however, made them vote differently this time.


Change of guard

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has many images in Sri Lanka. But none in the country will disagree to the fact that he is a doer. It is the fear of minorities across the country whether he would succumb to the influence of radical Buddhist monks who have, in the past, indulged in communal riots. However, a large portion of the majority believes that he will bring development, jobs and stability to the country. In the post-election scanario, where many are hopeful and many frightened, will Gotabaya take extraordinary steps for the reconciliation of people in war ravaged Northern Province is another question yet to be answered.

Ishan Abeyagunawardhena, a Sinhalese Buddhist businessman based in Dhaka, travelled to Galle to cast his vote for Gotabaya. In his 30s, Abeyagunawardhena says, “I was forced to shift my wife and children from Dhaka to Colombo in 2016 following Islamic State attacks there. But we faced a similar attack here too. Gotabaya alone can secure the country.”


Dismissing fears that the new President would go after the minorities, he adds, “There is no peace without national security, remember.”

But others point out that a number of radical Buddhist organisations which support Gotabaya played a role in the riots that targeted Muslims and Christians in 2014. Alleged Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) activists had led attacks on two Muslim-majority towns in the south, leaving four killed. In the presidential elections that followed a year later, Mahinda was defeated by Sirisena, who got 51.28% of the votes.

Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express Tamil Christian nuns on Mannar Island believe the new president has to do more to heal the nation, which has suffered enough. (Express photo by: Arun Janardhanan)

After Gotabaya’s victory, the BBS told The Sunday Express, its work was almost done and, if its demands are met, they may think of disbanding. Says CEO Dilantha Withanage, “Protecting Buddhism and the Sinhala race are our top priorities. But, we are not racists. President Gotabaya is the leader of everyone. But in Sri Lanka, with the majority Sinhalese divided, minorities become the kingmakers. This makes us insecure.”

About his statements seen as anti-Muslim, he says that what they are against is “influence of Arabic culture”. “Muslims should be a part of the country, they shouldn’t see themselves as a separate entity.”

Dan Priyasad, a Sinhalese youth whose name has been linked to several incidents of violence, calls Gotabaya a “good leader” who would take “decisive” steps. He makes the same appeal as Withanage. “There is no need for (our) nieces and nephews to remain separate. All of us, Sinhala, Muslim, Christian and Tamil, should be one family — Sri Lankan.”


Lankeshwara, who voted for Gotabaya, adds that having just Sinhalese backing doesn’t augur well for Gotabaya’s presidency. “I am happy to see him win but I am not happy he won with only Sinhalese votes. He should win the minds of minorities too,” he says.

Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express Puttalam, a coastal district 130 km north of Colombo, houses thousands of Muslim families who fled the northern provinces in 1990, driven out by the LTTE which controlled the regio. (Express photo by: Arun Janardhanan)



A popular destination for Europeans on the western coast of Sri Lanka, 40 km from Colombo, the town has a Catholic Christian majority, along with a sizeable number of Muslims. While Premadasa finished ahead of Gotabaya here, many among the Christian community here say they voted for the SLPP.

A senior officer, a Christian, points out that Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith had criticised the previous regime for failing to prevent the Church blasts. In this indirect support to Gotabaya, the officer adds, the Church was also looking out for its own interests, having sensed that Gotabaya was winning.


Sarath Iddamalgoda, a Catholic priest and prominent human rights defender, who runs a centre for marginalised sections, admits the Easter attacks changed the political leanings of Christians. “Some among the Christian clergy suspicious about Muslims spread confusing ideas about the community. However, other Christian priests and nuns sheltered Pakistani refugees immediately after the blasts as they faced threats.”

Gotabya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka President, Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka elections 2019, World news, Indian Express Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to his supporters at a rally in Homagama, outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo: Eranga Jayawardena, File)

About Gotabaya’s promise of inclusivity, Iddamalgoda speaks for many when he says, “We will know the tree only by the fruit. He was not a kind man in the past, let’s wait and see. I feel it all depends on the powers around him.”

Further north, among the relatively poorer community of Christians in the coastal town of Chilaw, a young priest at St Mary’s Cathedral, who spoke anonymously, says the promise of securing the nation doesn’t wash of Gotabaya’s past. “Will he snatch the human rights of citizens?” he wonders, adding that he is ready to give the President a chance. “Gotabaya may be the best person to provide jobs and bring development as he is an efficient man. Maybe that is why people voted for him. Nobody wants to see his old face.”

It is this ruthless efficiency of Gotabaya’s that is believed to have helped him take down the LTTE as Defence Secretary. He had complete control over the military operation and the coordination with Indian and US intelligence agencies. After the end of hostilities in 2009, Gotabaya had been accused of war crimes, including the disappearance of several thousand people.


Located 130 km north of Colombo, Puttalam houses thousands of Muslim families who fled the northern provinces in 1990, driven out by the LTTE which controlled the region.

Muslims have had a fraught existence in Sri Lanka’s turbulent history, including the 1970s armed rebellion of Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) rebels, and the 30 years of conflict with the Tigers. The LTTE’s campaign for a Tamil-ethnic country largely meant Hindus, with the Muslims who share the same ancestry an unwanted appendage.

S M Muhajireen, 69, remembers the day he fled Mannar: October 25, 1990. A government schoolteacher, he had owned several acres of land. “I fled with my three children, all below the age of five, wife, paralysed father and blind mother. That morning, the LTTE had made announcements in the village asking us to leave immediately. The instruction was to leave all valuables behind, except necessary clothes, a radio and a torchlight. Before we boarded a boat, LTTE men frisked all of us,” Muhajireen recalls.

He was among the nearly 40,000 Muslims who fled Mannar that day. Dispersing initially, most eventually came to settle down near Puttalam.

Muhajireen, who now works as a receptionist at a small lodge near the Puttalam beach, says, “Our exodus was similar to Hijrah (the journey of Prophet Muhammed and followers from Mecca to Medina in the 6th Century). Our boats survived heavy tides and dark seas south of Mannar as we sailed to Negombo. Not a single child drowned or boat capsized.”

Muhajireen believes “that period of crisis” helped the Muslim community “flourish”, comparing their fate favourably to that of the Tamils in the north who paid a heavy price in the final stretch of the war. The north continues to lag behind the rest of the country in overall development.

Muhajireen would like to believe Gotabaya is a changed man, particularly at a time when Muslims are again living under the shadow of suspicion. “He says he would be the President of everyone. I hope so. Not everyone who takes revenge on others will do so again.”

At Ulukkapallam near Puttalam, where around a thousand Muslims settled after escaping the LTTE, Mohammed Haneefa, 62, says he backs Gotabaya for finishing off the Tigers. Agrees neighbour Muhammed Kaud Haleem. “I want peace. I was very, very happy when the war ended,” he says, adding, “He (Zahran Hashim, the mastermind of the Easter blasts) was not a Muslim; no Muslim can kill others. Let all of us live peacefully.”


In BC 288, the daughter of King Ashoka travelled to this town from Bodh Gaya in north India with a branch of the Maha Bodhi, under which Gautam Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, and planted it here. The ‘Sri Maha Bodhi’ tree is now located on the outskirts of Anuradhapura town, which swarms with tourists in white. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited the town.

The choice of Anuradhapura by Gotabaya for his swearing-in, given its ancient Sinhala civilisation links, was not lost on anyone. India too read in it a conciliatory gesture, given the town’s Indian links and the Rajapaksa family’s perceived pro-China leanings. In his reply to Modi congratulating him on his win, Gotabaya said “I look forward to strengthening our friendship”.

Buddhist monk Njana Rathna of the Sirisangabo meditation centre praises Gotabaya as a man who has “clarity on everything”. “He is very proud of Sinhalese Buddhist tradition. I am sure he will take the entire country together and follow the ‘Anusasanas (religious instructions)’ of monks.”

Njana Rathna insists Muslims and Christians too like the President now, and that he must try further integrate them. “He should take efforts to mainstream minority religions. They shouldn’t be limited to the small circles of their religion.”

Another senior monk, who claims to have worked for Gotabaya and requests anonymity, says the war against the LTTE shouldn’t be seen through the prism of racism. Urging both the minorities and Gotabaya to move on, he says, “When there were JVP rebels in the 1970s and ‘80s, the State killed thousands of them brutally. They were Sinhalese. The same happened with the LTTE. They were killed because they were separatists, not for their Tamil identity. Sri Lanka has killed terrorists always, irrespective of their links.”


This town marks the beginning of the Tamil-dominated northern Lanka from the Colombo side. There was a time when this was a stopover for rifle-wielding LTTE men seeking supplies.

Yunus, a shopowner, says he voted for Gotabaya “for his daring actions during the war”. Two of his brothers were assassinated by the LTTE. Likening the Goatabaya vs Premadasa contest to a “street fight between boxers”, Yunus says, “If Gotabaya is controlled by radical Buddhist monks, it will be unfortunate.”

Yunus adds that he can understand some of the apprehensions of the majority community. “What makes them insecure is not just the Easter Sunday blasts but other factors too such as changes in Muslim culture under the influence of Saudi Arabia, influential Muslims in businesses, and even some Muslim youths backing Pakistan instead of Sri Lanka during cricket matches. Otherwise, an ordinary Sinhalese will have no issue with minority communities. We live together, have so much in common. Politicians, including Muslim, asserting their power in the name of religion, derail the balance.”

The son and brother of V Konamalai, 70 died trying to escape to India by boat during the war. Konamalai lives in a nondescript village on the road from Mannar to Jaffna, which used to be the capital of the LTTE-controlled region. “My son and brother were killed by the army. While the army killed us for being Tamil, the LTTE killed us for not joining them,” he says, adding that this is why he didn’t care whether the President was Gotabaya or Premadasa. “We have suffered enough, no one can do anything more.”

However, for a Tamil Christian nun on the Mannar Island, this suffering is precisely why the new President needs to do more for the nation to heal. Every other house on the island has photos of war victims, every classroom has orphaned children, every office has widows, the 45-year-old nun, who doesn’t want to be identified, says. “Do not kill us, kidnap us, build more prisons. The LTTE cannot come back as people hate them as well. A section of their leaders escaped and are leading a good life in Europe. We don’t hate Gotabaya, but, yes, people are frightened. I wish President Gotabaya would come and meet people here, take them into confidence, assure them that he doesn’t see all Tamils as the LTTE, tell them why he led that brutal war, let us know if our missing near ones are dead, provide us closure, give compensation to rebuild lives again, and hold our hands,” she says.

M A Sumanthiran, a veteran leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that was a part of the previous regime, says the Tamils have not got the answers they need. “Not even the promised Truth and Reconciliation Commission (to look at the war) was appointed,” he says.


A stronghold of the LTTE for a long time, Jaffna fell to the army after a long fight in the war. Even after it was freed, the government could bring in its supplies only through the sea route as the roads connecting it to the mainland remained under LTTE control.

Gajendran Ponnambalam, who has an office on the outskirts of Jaffna town, was among the Tamil leaders who appealed to the community to boycott the election. A former MP and the leader of the region’s All Ceylon Tamil Congress, he says, “What is the difference between Premadasa and Gotabaya? Gotabaya is a known devil, one who should have faced trial for war crimes. But Premadasa is also a majority Sinhala Buddhist. Both emphasise ‘unity of the State’, which means nothing but a majority Sinhalese Buddhist State.”

Ponnambalam too believes it is not easy for the Tamils to forgive Gotabaya. While the President may try to overcome the fear, he says, “People cannot forget how he went after them.”

The Mullivaikkal beach here is where the LTTE made its last stand. In the space of three months before the war ended in May 2009, around three lakh people were trapped here in a narrow strip, and over 40,000 were killed, including civilians, LTTE activists and soldiers. LTTE chief V Prabhakaran’s body was found near a lagoon about 10 km away. Remains of the war, including vehicles and boats used by the LTTE, can be seen in army-controlled areas.

V S Sivakaran, a prominent activist in his early 40s, was in Mullivaikkal in those days. He agrees with the Mannar Island nun that a “revival” of the LTTE is impossible — adding, “unless they get support from outside”.

However, neither does he see any softening of the Tamils towards Gotabaya. “Since 2005, the Tamils in the north haven’t changed their stand towards the Rajapaksa family — only they have. Development was the only slogan of Gotabaya in this election. He didn’t talk about the thousands of missing people, the war crimes, the constitutional questions, the Tamil issues. The army occupied the land of Tamils… It is the memories of the Mullivaikal massacre by the army that sustain the Tamil anger against Gotabaya.”

About India, he says, “We do not have any hope from it as its role is dubious. The Modi government lacks transparency.”


In Alwis Place, a post residential area of the capital city, is located the office of TRIAD, an advertising agency that helped run the Gotabaya campaign. Dilith Jayaweera, a media baron who owns popular news channel and dailies besides TRIAD, has not just steered earlier presidents and prime ministers to victory (including Mahinda and Chandrika Kumaratunga) but is also seen to have helped the Rajapaksa government get popular opinion on its side during the war against the LTTE. “Our job was to make people emotionally a part of the war. With so many soldiers dying, to make them believe it was their cause too. It was such a success that wives of armymen asked them to go back to the war field,” says Jayaweera.

In this election, he adds, his team targeted the fencesitters, the urban and rural middle class besides first-time voters. “Minority votes were considered a bonus. Still, a lot of campaign material was prepared aimed at the Tamils.”

Former army chief Major General (retd) Daya Rathnayake, who played a key role during the war, claims to have known Gotabaya for 30 years. According to him, a fellow Sinhalese, “Gotabaya is not a racist, or an extremist. He is a balanced, farsighted man. Judging him on his role as Defence Secretary is foolish as it was a period when the country was in a deep crisis.”

Rathnayake adds that Gotabaya had to take the support of Sinhalese Buddhists to win given “the reality of turbulent Sri Lanka”. “He will definitely win the minds of minorities before the next general elections.”

While brother Mahinda is seen as a showman and a leader of the masses, Gotabaya has built himself up as a down-to-earth man, who dresses simply in a shirt or trousers rather than the usual politician attire, eats vegetarian, keeps away from the VIP culture of Colombo, shuns ostentatiousness such as his elder brother’s grand mansion, and, over and above all, who gets work done. Among the first instructions of his Secretariat were suspension of all foreign tours by ministries and bureaucrats, cutting down of the presidential convoy to just two back-up vehicles, and reducing his staff from 1,200 to 200.

In a recent interview with The Sunday Express, Gotabaya was asked about whether the Lankan army had tried to capture Prabhakaran alive, and if there had been an offer of surrender. Gotabaya replied, “… Prabhakaran was not wise (enough) to call me, but look at KP (LTTE No. 2 Selvarasa Pathmanathan)… He is living happily because we were willing to understand his past and mistakes… We still believe in that.”

Lanka will hope Gotabaya lives up to that promise.

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First published on: 24-11-2019 at 01:00:26 am
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