Sri Lanka steps up security ahead of polls

A policeman at a roadblock near a poster featuring presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa (left) in Colombo yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A policeman at a roadblock near a poster featuring presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa (left) in Colombo yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fears of violence on final day of hustings; EU sends more presidential election observers

COLOMBO • Police stepped up security across Sri Lanka yesterday over fears of violence on the final day of campaigning for the fiercely contested presidential election, officials said.

Elite police commandos reinforced the police as the two front runners in Saturday's vote, Mr Sajith Premadasa and Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, held rival rallies in and around Colombo.

"There are reports of possible violence," a senior police official said. "Additional strength has been deployed in vulnerable areas. Sniffer dogs and explosive detectors will also be used at final rallies."

Mr Premadasa, 52, is the son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was targeted by a suicide bomber during a May Day rally in Colombo in 1993.

Mr Rajapaksa, brother of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack in 2006 blamed on Tamil Tiger separatist rebels.

While ethnic tensions have eased, the country was rocked this year by coordinated Islamist extremist bombings on Easter Sunday that killed at least 269 people.

There had been no such attacks during campaigning, but the Election Commission said there were nearly 30 incidents of violence involving members of rival parties.

Private monitor People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (Paffrel) said this year's campaigning was peaceful compared with 2015, when there were more bomb attacks and shootings. But Paffrel chief Rohana Hettiarachchi said there were more incidents of hate speech, disinformation and intimidation on social media, as well as radio and television. "We noticed a trend of using social media to issue threats against political opponents," Mr Hettiarachchi said.

Campaigning was set to stop at midnight yesterday, allowing a two-day cooling-off period before Saturday's ballot, with results expected on Sunday. Some 16 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to choose a winner from among a record 35 candidates, including two monks and one woman.

The European Union yesterday dispatched 30 additional election observers around the country, joining 50 who have been in Sri Lanka for a month already.

A possible Rajapaksa victory has raised concerns abroad about human rights and a renewed pivot towards China.

The Rajapaksa brothers are beloved among the majority Sinhalese community for crushing the Tamil Tigers to end Sri Lanka's 37-year civil war in 2009. The final months of the conflict - when Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa effectively ran the security forces - allegedly saw some 40,000 Tamil civilians killed. He denies accusations of running a "death squad" that allegedly abducted and murdered not only Tamils but also political opponents and journalists after the war ended.

According to Reporters Without Borders, in the "dark decade" of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa's rule, at least 14 journalists "were murdered in connection with their work". His government also presided over a ballooning of Sri Lanka's debts as it borrowed heavily from China for a string of infrastructure projects, many mired in graft allegations.

Mr Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, yesterday said if Mr Gotabhaya wins, Sri Lanka "will work with everybody" on securing investment. On human rights concerns, Western capitals "should give a fair chance to us", he told reporters. "They can't be monitors of this country, they must be partners."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2019, with the headline 'Sri Lanka steps up security ahead of polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe